Free at last
Justice is a long time coming for prisoners convicted of crimes they didn’t commit
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It was around 3 a.m. when 19-year-old Richard Miles made his way through the shadows of Dallas’ Bluffview Boulevard. It was a warm spring night in 1994.
Miles noticed a lone police car sitting at a nearby light. But he didn’t think much of it. He wasn’t up to trouble—just heading home after a late night hanging out with friends.
Miles had just graduated a year before from Skyline High School. He’d spent months working at McDonald’s before quitting to figure out his next steps. He had a job consultation with the Texas Workforce Commission scheduled for the morning.
Miles paused at a crosswalk on the corner of West Lovers Lane before venturing across. As he stepped onto the sidewalk on the far side, Miles heard a strange whirring overhead: a helicopter. He looked up—straight into the blinding glare of its searchlight. At the same moment, police cars roared from the gloom and screeched to a halt around him.
Someone yelled at Miles to lie on the ground. He dropped to the grass. Everything became a blur after that. Officers cuffed his hands behind his back and started reading him his Miranda rights. They loaded him into a police car and drove off. That marked Miles’ last moment of freedom for the next 15 years.
In hindsight, he often refers to that day as “the day that Richard Ray Miles Jr. died.” He says everything he hoped to become died with the click of those handcuffs.
Miles is one of about 3,300 people convicted during the last 34 years of crimes they didn’t commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Each year, dozens of convictions are overturned. Last year yielded a record-high number: 242.
Although known wrongful convictions make up only a small fraction of convictions overall, they have an outsized impact. Together, these innocent people have spent a collective 30,000 years in prison.
Exposing wrongful convictions and liberating captives is slow, painstaking, and costly labor for the attorneys and advocates devoted to it. A single exoneration often requires a decade of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even then, there are never any guarantees in this notoriously difficult line of work.
When Richard Miles first climbed into that police car in 1994, he felt confident investigators would soon realize they had the wrong man. Miles gave officers the numbers of five friends who could confirm his whereabouts during the preceding 24 hours.
But on their way to headquarters, the arresting officers stopped at a Texaco gas station. Miles could see a cluster of ambulances and squad cars in the parking lot. He didn’t know it, but a gunman had shot two people at the site just half an hour earlier.
That’s also where eyewitness Marcus Thurman glimpsed Miles in the back seat of the patrol car and told officers, “That’s the guy that done the shooting.” Later, Thurman picked Miles out of a six-photo lineup. None of the other six eyewitnesses could identify him.
On Aug. 25, 1995, a jury convicted Miles of both murder and attempted murder. He received a 60-year prison sentence. After listening to the verdict, Miles stood in stunned silence. From his left, he heard sighs of relief from the victim’s family and from his right, cries of agony from his own.
FIFTEEN YEARS BEFORE Richard Miles stood in that Dallas courtroom, Jim McCloskey made his way along the corridors of Trenton State Prison for the first time.
McCloskey was pursuing his master’s of divinity at nearby Princeton Theological Seminary. He started visiting inmates to meet his degree’s fieldwork requirement. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he donned a clerical collar and made his rounds in two maximum-security cell blocks.
That’s where McCloskey met Jorge de los Santos. “Chiefie,” as his fellow inmates called him, was a former heroin addict serving a life sentence for a 1975 murder in Newark, N.J. But Chiefie insisted he was innocent. McCloskey was skeptical.
“I had a tough time believing him,” McCloskey said. “Because he not only said that he was innocent, but he also said the police and prosecutors framed him.”
Over the next three months, Chiefie stuck to his story. Eventually, McCloskey agreed to read over his court transcripts. He found that prosecutors had no evidence placing Chiefie at the scene of the crime. The case depended on the testimony of two fellow addicts—one of whom had spent time in prison with Chiefie before his trial. He claimed Chiefie had confessed to him.
McCloskey started to suspect that testimony was false. That’s when Chiefie confronted him. “He said, ‘Do you believe I’m innocent?’” McCloskey recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, yeah I do.’”
“Then what are you going to do about it?” Chiefie fired back. “I’ve been on my knees for the last six years praying to God to send somebody here to rescue me from this hell on earth. And I believe you’re that man—whether you know it or not, or whether you want to be that man—you’re the man.”
That got McCloskey’s attention. He spent the night praying and reading Scripture. He couldn’t help but wonder if God was calling him to intervene on Chiefie’s behalf. “And then I came to believe that He was,” McCloskey said.
McCloskey took a year off school to reinvestigate Chiefie’s case. He returned to finish his master of divinity degree a year later, but kept working on Chiefie’s case all the while.
He also teamed up with a 34-year-old defense lawyer from Hoboken, N.J.—a man named Paul Casteleiro. Together, they subpoenaed the prosecutor’s files and found notes proving he relied on testimony from a career informant—and lied about it. That was enough to persuade Judge Frederick B. Lacey to grant Chiefie a new trial.
Chiefie regained his freedom in 1983. And Jim McCloskey embraced his calling. That summer, he founded Centurion Ministries, named for the Roman soldier in Luke 23 who looks at Christ on the cross and declares, “Certainly this man was innocent!” Today the organization is known simply as Centurion.
It was the first organization of its kind anywhere in the world, and it fought an uphill battle. McCloskey said most people believed, as he had, that the U.S. criminal justice system was practically flawless. “I was a voice in the wilderness in the 1980s,” he recalled.
McCLOSKEY STARTED WITH the cases of three other New Jersey lifers. By 1989, Centurion had freed those men and cracked another case as well. That helped build some credibility. But the idea of innocent people in prison was still a tough sell.
Then, in 1989, Gary Dotson became the first person acquitted through DNA testing. DNA evidence provided a scientific means of proving innocence and sparked a revolution in the justice system. After that, the public mindset started to shift.
In 1992, civil rights lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld started their nonprofit, the Innocence Project, helping bring greater visibility to innocence work. Other organizations followed suit. Today, there are dozens of innocence organizations across the United States.
One of these is the Innocence Project of Texas. Attorney Mike Ware co-founded the nonprofit in 2006 after working as a criminal defense lawyer for over 20 years. Ware first started hearing about DNA exonerations in the 1990s, but said he’d known about wrongful convictions for years: “I knew for a fact that innocent people were convicted because I was working in the field.”
In the mid-1980s, Ware opened a private law practice in Tarrant County, Texas—next door to Dallas County, where Richard Miles was convicted. Ware said the Dallas County district attorney’s office had a reputation for an unethical “win-at-all-costs” mentality. He and other defense attorneys hated going to trial there.
So, Ware wasn’t shocked when he started hearing about exonerations in Dallas County. “Nobody was surprised because everybody assumed that Dallas County probably convicted a bunch of innocent people.”
Then, in 2007, a new district attorney took office in Dallas: Craig Watkins. Ware says Watkins was “an outsider”—the first African American DA ever elected in Texas. He also had no prior experience as a prosecutor.
Watkins brought a reformer’s zeal to the office. He proposed a new strategy for handling wrongful convictions: something called a “conviction integrity unit,” or CIU. The team would work within the DA’s office to reinvestigate innocence claims. Watkins asked Ware to join his staff as CIU chief.
Ware’s first move in his new role was to start sifting through the office’s database of DNA testing requests—a list about 400 cases long. Texas passed a statute in 2001 allowing prisoners to apply for post-conviction DNA testing. But Ware said previous district attorneys did everything they could to avoid testing. “It seemed like every time there was a test, there was an exoneration,” Ware said. “And they were embarrassed.”
Ware and his team started down the list and granted test requests previously denied. Almost right away, they started getting exonerations. Ware estimates the CIU won around 25 exonerations during his four years.
Not everyone applauded the changes, though. Ware said he got lots of feedback from people who told him, “Your job is to lock people up, not to let them out.” But Ware stood his ground. “Our job is to seek justice, not simply convictions,” he told them. “And that’s what we’re doing.” DNA evidence provided hard data to back up that claim.
But, contrary to crime drama depictions, only a fraction of cases involve viable DNA evidence. Still, those cases helped Ware and his team better understand why wrongful convictions happened in the first place. They identified common threads running through many of them. Things like prosecutorial misconduct, flawed forensic evidence, faulty eyewitness identification, and racial discrimination.
“We can see what the red flags are in a conviction even when there’s no DNA,” Ware said. “And we started applying what we knew about what caused the wrongful convictions in the DNA exonerations to cases in which there was no DNA.” The first non-DNA case Ware and his team decided to tackle was one brought to their attention by contacts at Centurion: Richard Miles.
BY THAT TIME, Miles had spent 10 years in the H.H. Coffield Unit, where he wrestled to make sense of the accusations against him. Miles had grown up in a deeply spiritual home. His mom was a pre-K teacher. His dad was a disabled veteran. They took their four kids to church pretty much every time the doors were open. And his father always emphasized the value of preserving life. “And so taking somebody’s life was really not a part of my DNA,” Miles said.
Over the years, Miles sat in his cell and cried out in prayer, “God, what do You have going on here? This is not right.” The Biblical account of Joseph kept coming to mind—the story of another wrongful conviction. Miles knew he faced a crisis of faith.
“If I’m walking around, carrying this book, saying I believe it—and I’m saying it’s true—then I have to say, ‘You know what, if You did it for Joseph, I have to trust that You will do it for me.’” Miles clung to that belief.
He also started to realize he wasn’t the only innocent man on Coffield Unit. One of the first people he met there was a fellow inmate named Benjamine Spencer. Spencer had already served 10 years of a murder sentence. He started chatting with Miles as he gave him his first prison haircut.
Spencer asked Miles what he was in for. Murder and attempted murder, Miles told him. But, “I don’t know nothing about it,” he added. That’s when Spencer told Miles about the organization working on his case: Centurion.
Spencer gave Miles Centurion’s address and told him to write a letter that night. He also encouraged Miles to start researching his case for himself in the prison’s law library.
Miles wrote Centurion for the first time in 1997. He says someone from the organization wrote back. They assigned him a case worker, but warned it would be a minimum of 10 years before its team could give his case their full attention.
Still, 10 years was better than 60, and Miles remained optimistic. His direct appeal was still moving forward in the courts, and he felt confident things would work themselves out. “I was blindly thinking, as so many people think, that there is justice in the system,” Miles said. “And if I allow the system to do what it’s supposed to do, then automatically justice will prevail.”
But a few years later, a 282nd District Court judge denied Miles’ direct appeal. Progress on his case stalled for the next five years.
Then, in 2007, Miles stumbled on a major breakthrough. He was sitting on his bunk one day when the door of his cell rolled open. The mail delivery woman pushed a huge box into the already cramped room. Attached was a letter from Centurion.
“I opened up the box, and it was my transcripts and police records,” Miles recalls. Hundreds of pages of material. Miles started sifting through it.
Providentially, Coffield Unit was on an institutional lockdown. So, Miles was able to spend the whole day reading his transcripts. He set aside his police records because he’d already seen them: Miles’ father had purchased those through the Freedom of Information Act a few years earlier.
But, the next morning, something told Miles to pull his police records back off the shelf. Right away, he noticed how thick the file was. The one his father had received contained 25 pages. This file included 85 pages.
Buried in those papers was a report detailing an anonymous phone call. A call that came in before Miles’ trial. It was from a woman saying her ex-boyfriend had confessed to the Texaco station shootings. The caller also confirmed the shooter used a 9 mm gun—a fact not publicly known at the time.
Miles was stunned. Prosecutors had never disclosed that information to his attorney. He knew it was a clear Brady rule violation—a failure to disclose info favorable to a defendant. And that could be a game changer.
But Miles couldn’t help feeling mixed emotions. “Because here it is. The key finally is in our hands 13 years later,” he said. “But they had it 13 years prior.”
Miles wrote to Centurion and told them what he’d discovered. Someone wrote back and told him Centurion was officially taking his case.
IN JANUARY 2008, Centurion founder Jim McCloskey and Dallas-area defense lawyer Cheryl Wattley traveled to the H.H. Coffield Unit to meet Richard Miles for the first time. Wattley had begun helping Centurion a decade earlier after her failed appointment to the federal bench during the Clinton administration.
After making their way through the security gauntlet at the H.H. Coffield Unit, Wattley and McCloskey took their seats in a metal booth in the visiting area.
Through a thick plexiglass barrier, they could see a man in his early 30s. Right away, Wattley noticed his radiant smile: “He has this heartfelt grin that comes from his whole body.” Not even the man’s white prison jumpsuit could dim the effect.
After brief introductions, they jumped into discussing the facts of Miles’ case. Wattley remembers Miles asking what was the fastest Centurion had ever cracked a case. Eighteen months, they told him. Miles made a bold prediction. “My case is going to beat that,” Wattley recalled him saying. She and McCloskey tried to temper his optimism, but Miles was determined. His case would be the new record-setter.
“And sure enough, it was,” Wattley said. Fifteen months later, she escorted Miles out of Frank Crowley Courts—a free man after 15 years. Together, they stood on the courthouse steps, and Wattley watched as Miles took his first deep breath of “free air.”
It was a deeply poignant experience—one Wattley lists among the most meaningful of her life.
The case against Miles had relied heavily on the testimony of Marcus Thurman—the witness who glimpsed Miles in police custody at that Texaco gas station in 1994. Thurman was the only eyewitness to pick Miles out of a photo lineup and identified him at trial a year later. But when CIU investigators questioned him, Thurman admitted he couldn’t actually remember what Miles looked like by that point.
Instead, Thurman said he pointed Miles out after prosecutor Tom D’Amore told him where the defendant would be sitting. D’Amore denied that claim.
In April 2012, the state of Texas paid Richard Miles $1.2 million in compensation along with a monthly $5,900 annuity. He used that money to buy a home for himself and his mother. Later, Miles got married and started a family. He also started a nonprofit called Miles of Freedom to help other former inmates adjust to life after prison.
Wattley said she’s proud of the way Miles uses his experiences to touch lives. And she believes he’s fulfilling his purpose. “This nightmare happened so that he could have the impact that he’s having,” she said. But it still makes her sad to think of all the years of freedom he’s lost.
Miles entered prison as a 19-year-old kid. He left as a 34-year-old man. His father, who fought for his son’s exoneration, died in the hospital six months before Miles got out. Miles “didn’t get to be a part of his family’s grieving,” Wattley said. “We can’t give that back to him.”
Wattley can’t help but think how much suffering could have been avoided if prosecutors and defense attorneys alike had asked themselves a simple question upfront: “Does this make sense?”
Miles didn’t match the description of the shooter. All seven eyewitnesses said the gunman was wearing dark shorts. Miles had on long work pants. Four said the man’s skin tone was much darker than Miles’. Three said the man shot with his right hand. Miles is left-handed. One said the shooter was 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-4. Miles is 5-9.
Wattley—who used to work in the DA’s office herself—encourages prosecutors to ask hard questions and pay attention to details. “It’s the details that will tell you whether or not it’s a true story,” she said.
Today, Wattley continues her work on behalf of the wrongly convicted, running an innocence clinic at UNT Dallas College of Law. She and her students search for wrongful conviction cases to bring to the attention of the Texas courts.
Wattley is also still working on the case of Ben Spencer—the man who first connected Miles to Centurion. In 2021, Spencer walked out of prison on bond after the Dallas County CIU uncovered new evidence that key witnesses lied at trial. His case is now pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Before his release, Spencer served nearly three and a half decades in prison. To date, Wattley and Centurion have spent over two decades fighting to prove his innocence.