For Mike Ware, the process of trying to get a person exonerated for a crime they didn’t commit reveals a lot of inequities in the criminal justice system.
As an adjunct professor at the Texas A&M School of Law and the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit that identifies and works to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, he’s realized the one thing that falsely convicted people have in common is that they’re all a part of some marginalized demographic.
He has also realized, during the 15 years of the Fort Worth-based Innocence Project’s existence, that it’s relatively easy to wrongfully convict a person, but it’s very difficult to exonerate them.
That’s why when he sees a successful outcome, like the recent exoneration of 44-year-old Houston resident Lydell Grant who was wrongly convicted of murder, the case feels extremely rewarding.
In 2012, Grant was convicted of murder in the stabbing death of 28-year-old Houston resident Aaron Scheerhoorn outside a bar. Six eyewitnesses testified against Grant during the trial. Grant had an alibi for the night of the murder, but was still sentenced to life in prison.
In spring 2018, after Grant contacted the Innocence Project for help, Jason Tiplitz, a Texas A&M School of Law student and member of the Innocence Project legal clinic, found anomalies in DNA evidence that proved Grant’s innocence.
Since the projects’ inception in 2006, the Innocence Project has partnered with the Texas A&M School of Law to review and assist in cases of wrongful conviction.
A&M Law students review and vet cases that have credible evidence of innocence and that may have relied heavily on eye witnesses for conviction, Ware said. They work on cases — often for several years — investigating the original trials and providing litigation in hopes of overturning the conviction.
In Grant’s case, Tiplitz found that Grant was clearly excluded from the DNA mixture recovered from the victim’s fingernails, and the DNA identified a different individual, 42-year-old Jermarico Carter.
“This finding is unfortunate because the discovery and confirmation of an unknown male contributor in the DNA mixture could have guided the [original] investigation to find the true perpetrator, and likely could have prevented the wrongful conviction of Mr. Grant,” Ware said in a report about the case.
The case attracted national attention, and in December 2019, Carter was arrested in Atlanta on different charges. The Houston Police Department was notified, and detectives flew to Atlanta to interrogate Carter, who confessed to Scheerhoorn’s murder.
Grant was released from prison in 2019, and on May 19, Grant was declared ”actually innocent” by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nearly a decade after being convicted murderer.
Fort Worth resident Jessica Mason, who assisted on the case as student in the fall of 2019, said there is some finality in him being released and fully exonerated that should be celebrated, but it is difficult to say he got justice.
““Because it doesn’t undo everything,” she said. “It doesn’t undo the years that he’s been incarcerated and the toll it’s taken on his body and his spirit and his life. You just can’t get those years back.”
An estimated 5,600 individuals have been wrongfully convicted in Texas, according to the Innocence Project. Ware said the nonprofit can average up to 100 letters a month from inmates claiming their innocence.
Ware said it’s important to continue to work to exonerate completely innocent people.
“There are a lot of injustices in our criminal justice system,” he said. “And innocent people being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit is just one of those. And that’s what we concentrate on.”