Students with the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Project played a key role in the exoneration of two Dallas County men who were wrongfully convicted of capital murder in a 1997 case and sentenced to life in prison.
Another man has confessed to the murder, and Claude Alvin Simmons Jr., 54, and Christopher Shun Scott, 39, will soon be released, the Dallas County district attorney’s office announced Wednesday.
The exoneration investigation started in early 2006 after the man who confessed, a convicted robber named Alonzo Hardy, wrote a letter to the Innocence Project, said John Stickels, a UTA assistant professor and director of the project there.
The letter led about a dozen students to re-examine the case over three years, reinterviewing witnesses and rereading trial transcripts, he said. Later, the network took its findings to the district attorney's office.
Much of the legwork was done by Natalie Ellis, a criminal justice major, who was the last student to take on the case, school officials said.
"This is pretty exciting," said Ellis, a junior. "It was my first case."
Simmons and Scott were convicted for the April 7, 1997, shooting death of Alfonso Aguilar in a home-invasion robbery.
A female relative was sexually assaulted during the crime.
Simmons and Scott testified at their back-to-back trials that they were innocent. They were convicted largely because the female relative identified them as the assailants.
The jury deliberated six minutes before convicting Simmons.
"I don't really think it was mistaken identification," Ellis said. "I think the witness was led to go one way, and that’s the way she went."
Hardy, 39, has been in prison since 1999, serving 30-year sentence for a robbery.
Hardy's confession matched evidence found at the crime scene, and he passed a polygraph, District Attorney Craig Watkins said. He also implicated another man, Don Michael Anderson, 40, who was arrested Tuesday night in Houston.
Ellis said she interviewed Hardy three times. He was from the same neighborhood as Simmons, and she believes he confessed because he wanted to set the record straight.
"I think he might be sick with cancer," she said. "I think he really wanted to get this off his chest."
Stickels said that after Wednesday's announcement he and lawyers involved in the case visited Simmons and Scott. A hearing is for Friday, after which the men will presumably be released.
"They are ecstatic," he said.
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