DALLAS -- It was a happy day to be in court for Steven Chaney, a man convicted almost 30 years ago on flawed bite-mark evidence.
“I'm a free man. I'm not out on bond or nothing anymore,” said Chaney, just moments after Dallas County prosecutors said in open court that they believed he was actually innocent in a 1987 double murder. “I’m not bearing the weight of false accusations any longer.”
A hearing before District Judge Dominique Collins lasted not even 10 minutes.
Prosecutors also revealed they now have an “alternative suspect” in the death of John Sweek and his wife. The judge agreed to seal records indicating the identity of that person.
“I want to apologize to Mr. Chaney, to the Sweek family, and to everybody, because when the system fails, we all suffer,” said Patricia Cummings, head of the Dallas County DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
It was an extraordinary moment when former Dallas County prosecutor Neil Pask took the stand. He was the man who prosecuted Chaney.
He was the one person to testify and he had requested to speak.
“I didn't recognize the faultiness of the science at that time, and I truly thought it was a righteous prosecution back in 1987,” he testified. “I was a few years out of law school and I did the best I could. But 29 years later, I do realize that he is completely innocent, and I'm sorry.”
The court erupted in cheers as the judge concluded the hearing.
“The judge is recommending that the court of criminal appeals find him innocent and grant him relief,” said Julie Lesser, a Dallas County public defender who specializes in wrongful conviction cases. “The judge is also recommending that the court of criminal appeals find that the evidence used against him was junk science, that he was convicted based on false evidence,” and that there was prosecutorial misconduct.
More than a dozen people — including Chaney — have either been released or exonerated in criminal cases involving bite-mark comparison testimony that was later discredited, according to The New York Times. And there’s no way to know exactly how many Steven Mark Chaneys there could be, because no one kept track of the use of bite-mark evidence in criminal cases.
Ten months ago, Chaney was released on bond after serving 28 years inside a Texas prison. He had always maintained his innocence in the stabbing deaths of the Sweeks. No one had seen him anywhere near the murder scene.
But at his trial, a U-shaped mark left on John Sweek’s arm would become the linchpin of the state’s case against him.
Two forensic dentists testified that they were certain it was a bite mark, and that Chaney had made that mark. One of them, Dr. Jim Hales, even went to far as to testify there was “one-in-a-million” chance that someone other than Chaney could have left the bite mark on John Sweek’s arm.
Chaney got the call last night that prosecutors had agreed to the innocence finding.
“I just couldn't believe it,” he said.
He met with Pask before the hearing.
“I prayed with him and I forgave him and we just put it under the blood of Jesus,” he said.
Chaney was flanked by Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, other lawyers from the Innocence Project, and Lesser.
Scheck called Pask’s decision to take the stand “extraordinary.”
“I have to give him a lot of credit for coming forward and saying it in the forthright way that he did,” he said.
Chaney's gotten his old job as a welder back. His wife, Lenora, who stuck by him for decades, was all smiles.
Lenora, who married him while he was prison, was one of nine alibi witnesses who accounted for Chaney’s whereabouts that day.
“I knew he was innocent,” Lenora said. “I knew someway God would find a way.”
Chaney's sons, Lonnie and Dustin, also came to show their support.
“I’m just glad that we have him back,” said Dustin, who was not even three when his father went to prison.
John Tatum, Chaney's original defense attorney, congratulated him. The two men shook hands.
“You look good,” Tatum told Chaney.
“Well, thank you. Thank you,” Chaney responded.
“I'm very happy for him after all these years,” Tatum said. “It does my heart good.”
Afterward, other exonerees who attended his hearing, gathered for a celebratory photo. Among them was famed exoneree Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in 1987 after prosecutors hid evidence.
The men are a brotherhood borne out of having been there.
“Every time they exonerate somebody, I will be here,” Chaney said.