Best of Times, Worst of Times

March 2, 2012 | By Professor Cheryl Wattley

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a time of great joy, it was a time of disappointment, it was a time of satisfaction, it was a time of frustration.  

This adaptation of the opening lines of a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens describes the experiences of attorneys who represent persons who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes in post-conviction proceedings.  When you stand beside a newly released client as he or she walks away from the courtroom, an innocent person, knowing that your training and hard work helped to make that day even possible, the emotions and sense of incredible privilege are overwhelming.  I know. I’ve had the honor of standing beside clients as the judge reverses the convictions.  I’ve known those best of times. 

On February 15, 2012, after a little more than two years of anxious waiting, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that my client, Richard Miles, was actually innocent of the murder and aggravated assault for which he had been convicted.  Only nineteen when he was sent to prison, Richard had spent fifteen years confined to the institutions that make up the Texas Department of Corrections.  But on that February day, the label of convict, felon, and murderer would be stripped away from him forever.  On that day, a new word would be used to describe him: exoneree. 

But there is another client, Benjamine Spencer, who I have represented for over eleven years.  In 2008, a Dallas County District Court, after a weeklong hearing, ruled that Ben was actually innocent of the murder for which he had been convicted in 1988.  But regrettably, astonishingly, in March 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the ruling that found Ben to be actually innocent. It snatched from him the freedom that had seemed to be within his grasp.  And so, he still sits in a Texas prison, an innocent man.  With each letter he writes, each word that I read, I am overwhelmed by the despair that he must feel, the utter desolation of that jail cell.  And I know that the fight for his freedom, the campaign for his exoneration must continue.  Because, until Ben is freed, it will be the worst of times.

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