By Brinda Kalita and Leslie Garcia
DALLAS, TX – One of the Innocence Project’s longest clients, Tyrone Day, was finally exonerated last week after the Dallas County District Attorney dismissed a 1990 sexual assault charge against him.
According to the report written by the Innocence Project, Day was just 19 years old at the time of his arrest. He ultimately accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 40 years in prison, despite maintaining innocence throughout the time of his case.
He later spent 26 years in prison, before being released on parole and required to register for life as a sex offender.
However, a later reinvestigation by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) found DNA testing excluded Day from the scene of the reported assault and confirmed the identity of two alternate suspects, said the Innocence Project.
The CIU’s investigation also revealed that the woman who reported the sexual assault hadn’t actually seen Day’s face when she identified him as one of her attackers. Instead, she had identified him from a far distance based only on a hat, which she said resembled one worn by one of her assailants, added the Innocence Project.
At the time Day took this plea because “Mr. Day was experiencing significant health issues and had two young daughters to whom he wanted to return home, so he accepted the plea and ended up spending nearly three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” the Innocence Project wrote.
Day states how he is grateful for this opportunity, writing “I want to thank the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit for bringing this to a conclusion. It has been a long, hard journey for my family and me, but I never lost faith that my innocence would be proven,” he stated.
Unfortunately, situations like Tyrone Day’s are not uncommon, argues the Innocence Project.
Oftentimes, the threat of a longer sentence, if a case is lost at trial, drives too many innocent people to plead guilty. In fact, 26 percent of known exonerees accepted a guilty plea,” the Innocence project stated.
Potkin noted, “Like so many people accused of crimes, Mr. Day had no real choice. If he did not plead guilty to a crime he did not do, he would have faced a trial in a system stacked against him, and risked spending the rest of his life in prison. He pleaded guilty because it appeared to offer the most compelling chance to reunite with his daughters, who were just 2 and 3 years old, sooner. But that was tragically not the case, and he spent 26 years locked away from them.”
However, the Innocence Project also said it believes that it is important for prosecutors’ offices to collaborate with teams from the Innocence Project attorney to find out real truths.
Gary Udashen of the Innocence Project of Texas, one of Day’s attorneys, writes, “This case is another example of how wrongful convictions can be corrected when a prosecutor’s office works with Innocence Project attorneys to find the truth. The work of Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, as well as Conviction Integrity Unit Chief Cynthia Garza and her staff, was essential to justice being achieved for Tyrone Day.”
Paul L Gerdner, a partner in the Weil complex commercial litigation practice group and leader of the firm’s litigation practice in Texas, who also was a part of Day’s legal team, elaborates further on this claim.
“This case has been a humbling experience, and one that stands out in my 29 years of practice…While Mr. Day’s justice was delayed, the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit and everyone involved in this case made sure that it was ultimately not denied,” Gardner said.
The Innocence Project also spent time elaborating on how many factors, such as eyewitness misidentification and the guilty plea problem, led to Day’s conviction.
The project shared the story of how Day ended up even having claims brought against him in the first place, which was largely based on inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
“On Oct. 25, 1989, an 18-year-old woman called, saying [she was a] victim of a sexual assault. While communicating with police via handwritten notes after the attack, the woman saw Mr. Day walking by and identified him as one of her assailants. This identification was apparently based on the fact that Mr. Day was wearing a white hat, which the woman said looked like a hat one of her assailants had worn.
“Based on the woman’s on-the-street identification, the police arrested Mr. Day the night of the incident. The woman never saw Mr. Day’s face and never gave an official statement to the police; he was identified solely on the basis of his hat.”
The Innocence Project also shared that when it comes to cases that they work with, they found that 63 percent of the 243 wrongful convictions the Innocence Project has helped overturn. Factors that contribute to it include challenges associated with cross-racial identification.
The Innocence Project also elaborated on how promises from pleading guilty can lead to wrongful convictions.
In regard to Day’s case, the Innocence Project writes Day had two young daughters he wished to return to upon his arrest in 1989 in the Dallas County Jail and a medical condition that went untreated during his detention. Day’s attorney incorrectly told him that he would be released after four years of a 40-year sentence if he pleaded guilty and cautioned him of a possible sentence of 99 years in prison if he went to trial.
Day did not believe he could convince the jury of his innocence—being a Black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in Texas. Hoping for a short release after four years, he pleaded guilty.
The Innocence Project also shared, “About 26 percent of 3,000 people who have been exonerated since 1989 plead guilty. Despite being innocent, pleading guilty becomes the rational choice when dealing with plea deals.”
The Innocence Project noted the timeline of Day’s case, which was accepted by the Innocence Project in 2004 after he initially wrote to them on July 18, 2000, after the courts denied his many requests for DNA testing.
The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office CIU agreed to DNA testing in 2008 of vaginal swabs and cuttings from women’s clothing. Day was excluded as a contributor after DNA testing revealed three unknown male profiles. After a DNA comparison to the FBI’s database, Day was again excluded as a contributor, and two other men were identified.
The Innocence Project said Day is now a system manager and helped found the horticulture program at Restorative Farms. Day was born and raised in South Dallas, where he worked on his grandmother’s farm. During his incarceration, he worked 19 years at the prison’s greenhouse and graduated top of his class at Trinity Valley Community College where he studied horticulture.
The Innocence Project added since Day’s release, he has helped bring access to fresh and affordable vegetables to South Dallas through the creation of Restorative Farms, and their mission to help residents cultivate their own food. Restoration Farms has donated over 40,000 plants and 220 portable gardens.
“Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming. I was born and raised in South Dallas, and the opportunity to bring fresh produce here, where it’s scarce, and train the next generation of farmers is so meaningful to me,” Day said after his exoneration.