A courtroom packed with family and friends burst into applause Thursday when a judge freed a Dallas man who spent 27 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault before DNA evidence cleared him.
Johnny Pinchback, the 22nd person to be exonerated through DNA testing in Dallas County since 2001, was found to have been wrongly convicted of raping two teenage girls in a Dallas field in 1984.
Dressed in a white pinstriped suit bought for him by a fellow exoneree two weeks ago, Pinchback, 55, said faith and support from his family kept him motivated to fight for his innocence.
"Even though it took 27 years, (God) did exactly what I asked him for," Pinchback said.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins did not contest the finding that Pinchback was wrongly convicted, and state District Judge Don Adams released Pinchback on a personal recognizance bond.
Pinchback said his immediate plans were to have a steak lunch and visit with his mother, who he said constantly reminded him to have faith that he would win his release.
The teenagers' identification of Pinchback for police and again during the trial was the key evidence against him.
An investigation initiated by the Innocence Project of Texas led to tests on body hair cuttings from one of the victims that showed the DNA of another man.
The hair cutting was the last piece of material from the rape kit, and Pinchback couldn't have been cleared without it, said Innocence Project attorney Natalie Roetzel. The Innocence Project has often lauded Dallas County for keeping evidence from old cases, not a standard practice around the state.
After the hearing, Watkins implored the Texas Legislature to pass two pending bills that would standardize the storage of evidence and improve witness identification. He said the Pinchback case illustrates the need for new legislation.
"I would ask that everybody who sees this travesty do something about it," Watkins said.
Charles Chatman, who was exonerated of a similar crime in 2008, said he and Pinchback became friends while in prison together for more than a decade. Officials with the Innocence Project said Chatman's lobbying was one of the reasons they pursued Pinchback's case.
In addition to the new suit, Chatman gave Pinchback a wallet with $100 in it. He said he would have pushed for Pinchback's release regardless of their friendship.
"I did it because I don't want to see innocent people in prison," Chatman said.
Pinchback said eventually he hopes to work to help other men in prison who contend they were wrongfully convicted.
"I can't sit around too long," Pinchback said. "There are guys there I promised to help. That's something I'm going to do."