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IU McKinney Wrongful Conviction Clinic helps free an innocent man from prison

May 11, 2016

An innocent man now walks free after being imprisoned for nearly 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Darryl Pinkins, now 63 years old, was wrongfully convicted of rape, sexual deviate conduct and robbery in 1991 in Lake County, Ind. He was released from prison in late April thanks to the efforts of Fran Watson, Clinical Professor of Law and her students in the Wrongful Conviction Clinic in the IU Robert H. McKinney’s School of Law in Indianapolis.

Fran Watson

Professor Fran Watson, who teaches in the Wrongful Conviction Clinic, holds the freshly signed order vacating Darryl Pinkins' conviction. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IUPUI

After rising every morning for over 20 years to be counted as an inmate, Pinkins still gets up each day at the same time.

“He’s still waking up for count,” Watson said. “I’ve heard it called a rebirth. You have to learn to live again.”

Since his release, Pinkins has been doing a lot of rejoicing. He’s also been spending time with his 84-year-old mother, who stood beside him through all the years of his incarceration. He’s also been reunited with his son who was born while he was in prison.

“He has a son now who is the age he was when he went to prison, so he’s getting to know that son as a man,” Watson said. 

Watson, who has worked to help wrongfully convicted prisoners since 1999, has been doing a lot of celebrating, too.

“It’s pretty much a high point of your lawyering career, and it’s a good lesson as a teacher when you’re a professor; the lessons come from how long it took,” she said.

Pinkins’ case was lost six times before it was won.

“Many times I had to drive back to prison and tell him we lost again,” Watson said.

Even though the science used to convict Pinkins was flawed, this time, his innocence in the decades-old case was undeniable because of the use of an emerging forensic science technique, TrueAllelle Casework System.

The new technique ruled Pinkins’ DNA out by separating out the genotypes of five men who assaulted a woman in the 1990s -- the crime for which Pinkins was wrongfully convicted. Previously, only two genotypes could be identified from the DNA evidence in the case.

 With all five genotypes separated out through the TrueAllelle Casework System, the evidence proved Pinkins’ DNA was not present, and he could not have committed the crime for which he was convicted. 

Those five assailants whose DNA are linked to the crime still have not been found. Watson continues to use genetic evidence from the TrueAllelle Casework to free Roosevelt Glenn, a prisoner who Watson believes was also wrongly convicted in the same case.

For Watson, a lesson from this for her IUPUI students and others is that wrongful convictions are a reality, and post-conviction work takes a lot of perseverance.

“The criminal justice system should over time create reforms that would alleviate the potential for wrongful convictions,” she said.

Darryl Pinkins

At center, Fran Watson and Darryl Pinkins stand together surrounded by IUPUI students who worked as part of Pinkins' legal team. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IUPUI

Such reforms might include rules for eyewitness identification to ensure that the officer conducting a lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is, alleviating potential subliminal suggestions to the victim as they pick a person from the lineup. Watson said there is also no law in Indiana on preservation of biological evidence.

Pinkins’ is the second exoneration to the Wrongful Conviction Clinic’s credit. Watson and her students are hard at work on seven open cases.

Watson gets most referrals for potential clients through the Innocence Project. She gets calls from mothers who know their child did not commit a crime.

“It’s a horrible circumstance if you’re a parent and you feel like your child has been wrongfully convicted and is actually innocent,” she said. 

While Pinkins has been reunited with his family after nearly 25 years of imprisonment, recovering from serving time for a crime he didn’t commit will be a long process.

“The problem will be fighting bitterness, and enjoying the rest of life,” Watson said. 

Pinkins is getting started on finding joy in life as a free man now. When Watson last spoke with Pinkins, he had just taken in a view of Chicago, looked out over the expanse of Lake Michigan and watched the clouds pass overhead.

The work of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and building a more prosperous and innoviative Indiana. 

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