After more than 31 years of being considered a murderer in the eyes of the law, a Dallas man is breathing easier now that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has declared him “actually innocent.”
Steven Chaney, 62, was convicted of the 1987 murders of a Dallas couple, largely on the basis of bite mark evidence that was later found unreliable.
“You’re classified and housed with people that actually do those things,” Chaney said of his time in prison.
He was released three years ago pending the final ruling that came Wednesday.
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“There’s been a lot of stress and anxiety in terms of just waiting for the finality to come,” Chaney said. “And in a sense, my life has been in suspension and held in suspension as we’ve waited for the decision to come. So this brings closure to that, and allows us to move forward.”
On the front porch of his East Dallas home Thursday, with his wife and son, Chaney reflected on the ordeal.
Lenora Chaney married the man she knew before, after he went to prison.
“Because I was in love with him and I knew he was innocent. I knew for a fact he was innocent,” Lenora Chaney said.
His son Lonnie was just 11 years old when his father went to prison. Lonnie said he tried to tell people that his father was innocent, but they did not believe him.
“What they believed in was the enforcement of the law. And if the law had him marked as a murderer and he wasn’t coming out, then dad gum it, that’s what he was. And I dealt with it,” said Lonnie Chaney.
The family could receive more than $2 million from the State of Texas as compensation for 31 years of wrongful conviction but Lenora Chaney said it does not equal all those years of freedom.
“It’s not the same,” she said.
Assistant Dallas County District Attorney Cynthia Garza worked to prove Chaney innocent. She is Chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
“It’s a joyful time for Mr. Chaney and also for the criminal justice system, to right the wrongs of the past,” she said. “We interviewed witnesses. We went through thousands of pages of investigative notes. We put a lot of effort into this.”
The exoneration leaves a real killer unpunished.
“When there’s been an exoneration and there’s a case that can be prosecuted, we will work to try to get that done. And in this case, that’s pretty much all I can tell you,” Garza said.
After what he and his family have been through, Chaney has advice for jurors in the future.
“Insist upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Don’t ask for it. Insist upon it. And refuse to convict without it,” he said.
Since his release Chaney has returned to the iron work he did before prison with the same company that employed him before.
It may be several months before state compensation is paid.