NORMAN — University of Oklahoma Associate Professor of Law Cheryl Wattley knows — perhaps better than most — the high stakes and extremes of legal work.
“We have set up this criminal justice system based upon an assumption that people do their jobs fairly and that we take pains to get it right. When we get it wrong, there is no amount of money that will give victims their lives back,” Wattley said. “It can be the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. The day you walk somebody out, it’s really good.”
Wattley works in the OU College of Law, currently serving as its director of clinical education and as an associate professor teaching criminal procedure, criminal law, trial techniques and civil rights.
In addition, Wattley also does post-conviction work, with three of her four cases resulting in the exoneration of innocent people.
Donating her legal expertise to groups like New Jersey-based Centurion Ministries, Wattley — together with Centurion’s founder and executive director Jim McCloskey — most recently brought a just end to the story of a Richard Miles, of Dallas, who was declared innocent by the Dallas court system on Feb. 12.
On the morning of May 16, 1994, then 19-year-old Miles found himself in a worst-case scenario.
It was 3 a.m. and he was walking back to a friend’s house when he was arrested by the Dallas police — complete with a helicopter spotlight assisting. He was put in the back of a police cruiser and taken to a nearby Texaco station in the northwest area of Dallas near Bachman Lake.
“I had no warning while I was walking,” Miles said. “I was still confident and calm when they took me to the Texaco.”
Based on a single eyewitness’ identification and unlucky coincidence, Miles was wrongly identified as the man who, 25 minutes earlier, had walked through the crowded gas station parking lot and shot two victims point blank while they sat in their parked car, killing one and injuring the other.
“I had a lot of mixed emotions. I remained confident in my innocence. I had an alibi and plenty of people to call, but as the procedures continued, my confidence became overshadowed,” Miles said.
After that morning, Richard’s life would never be the same again. Shortly thereafter, he was sentenced to spend the next 60 years behind bars, convicted of murder and aggravated assault. And that was that, for the next 15 years.
“Being in prison as an innocent man is like getting novocaine from the dentist,” Miles said. “You feel everything, but it dulls the pain. That’s how it was in prison; over the years, the pain of being there never went away, it just got less intense.”
Shortly after his release, Richard and his mother, Mrs. Miles, were featured guests at an event sponsored by John Grisham and McCloskey.
Wattley was present at the event and vividly recalled Mrs. Miles sharing her perspective of her son’s conviction and eventual release.
“The event was a celebration of Miles’ and other successful exoneration cases, and as part of the event, Mrs. Miles tells this very compelling story,” Wattley said.
“She tells us how she and her late husband were very involved in their church, and when Richard was arrested, she knew he was innocent and believed it to be God’s way of steering him out of a rebellious phase. When he was convicted, she told us how devastated she was and prayed for help. She then said, ‘Little did I know that God was going to send me angels to save my son,’” Wattley said.
Voice shaking with emotion, Wattley said, “To have someone publicly call you an angel in a crowded church full of people ... it’s amazing.”
Miles was freed from prison on Oct. 12, 2009 — 15 years after his conviction.
The process of achieving this goal was quicker than most, according to Wattley and McCloskey, and was distinct in that it was among the first exonerations made without DNA, based on recantation of witness testimony, prosecutor misconduct and police suppression of evidence.
“I started working on the case in July and he was freed that October,” McCloskey said. “This breaks our record. Things just moved; it was like the hand of God. He was freed so quickly because the district attorney agreed he was innocent, and when the DA joins you, it opens doors.”
Miles was Centurion’s 46th freed innocent person and was Wattley’s third case with Centurion.
“I feel so fortunate that I have such a dedicated and devoted attorney working for us,” McCloskey said of Wattley. “We could not do our work without her. Richard owes his freedom to her, Centurion and the Dallas DA’s office. All three had an equal share in this and worked as a team.”
Though Miles’ freedom wasn’t as costly as most exoneration cases, he still approaches his new life with gratitude and positive determination to make the most of it.
“The day I was released, they asked me what I wanted to eat, and I couldn’t even think about it because I’d spent the last 15 years being told what to do in every way. Since I know what that’s like, I want to help former inmates because it’s so hard out here and prison is so debilitating,” Miles said.
He is currently employed as an event organizer for a Dallas hotel and is working toward his dream of starting a special re-entry program called Miles of Freedom, where former inmates will renovate the facility that will serve as their transitional housing.
“In prison, you never see the work you’re made to do actually benefit anyone. You get into a mindset that good work doesn’t matter, and it makes you feel there’s no purpose. I want to show these men that their work means something and help them get out of that prison mindset,” Miles said.
Wattley is similarly focused on the tasks at hand and, like her client, possesses a passion for righting the wrongs of a fallible system.
“I do post-conviction work because we make mistakes. And when we make mistakes, it is really incumbent upon us to make it right. I firmly believe lawyering is about impacting lives. It’s a helping profession. It’s not often you are given the honor and privilege of having this type of impact,” Wattley said. ..Source.. by Caitlin Schudalla The Norman Transcript
April 2, 2012