Darryl Pinkins walked out of prison a free man in April after almost 25 years, exonerated in a heinous 1989 rape by advances in DNA forensics. But before the science could free him, Pinkins needed someone to believe in his innocence.
“The part that convinces you is once you meet the men,” Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor Fran Watson said of Pinkins and co-defendant Roosevelt Glenn, who completed a lesser rape sentence in the case in 2009. Watson and her students at the Indianapolis law school’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic have fought for more than 20 years to prove Pinkins and Glenn didn’t commit the crime for which they were convicted. She said the clinic continues to work to vindicate Glenn after Pinkins’ release.
On April 25, Watson and some of her former students joined Pinkins’ family and friends as he walked out of the Lake County Jail. “It was exhilarating, knowing that it finally came across, I finally got to prove what I was saying was true,” Pinkins, now 63, said in an interview. “You see life go by, and regardless of what’s going on and who’s helping you, you’ve got to have stamina. I’m thankful I had what it took to get through — first of all family, a good support system, and most of all, I believe I had God on my side.”
To Watson, the case raised red flags right away. Pinkins was a family man in his late 30s. The night the crime was committed was his payday, and he’d just gotten off work from a Gary steel mill with Glenn and another man who also was charged but not convicted. “It’s very unusual to find a man who stays out of trouble with the law, and then on payday decided to commit a crime that’s dog pack-like,” Watson said. “When you have experience in the criminal defense realm and you see that, you say, ‘that doesn’t fit.’”
Early in the morning of Dec. 7, 1989, a woman’s car stopped at an intersection in Hammond was rear-ended, and when she went to inspect damage, she was grabbed by a man she later identified as Pinkins. She was pulled into the car that hit hers by three men, driven away and raped by five men in the car who covered her face with protective overalls like those Pinkins and Glenn wore to work at the steel mill.
A veteran, Pinkins was advancing in his career, had two daughters and a son, and a fourth child on the way. He was getting ready to buy a house when he was arrested and charged. Juries in 1991 found him guilty of rape, deviate sexual conduct and robbery, and in 1993 found Glenn guilty of rape for a crime that fit the pattern of numerous “bump and rob” and “bump and rape” crimes plaguing northwest Indiana.
From the beginning, there was no genetic evidence linking either man to the crime, but Watson said the state argued their blood groups matched, and this could be used as an identifier. The defense offered no objections. “When the case was tried against Pinkins, DNA was new, and there weren’t a lot of criminal defense attorneys out there who knew what DNA meant,” Watson said.
But for as much evidence as authorities had against Pinkins and Glenn, the defense also had plausible alibis. They said Pinkins’ car broke down after he, Glenn and the third man left work, so they left it by the side of the road and went to call Pinkins’ girlfriend to come pick them up. When they returned to the car with oil, it had been broken into and the work clothes stolen. Pinkins and Glenn reported the theft of the overalls when they returned to work, but prosecutors also used this evidence to suggest their guilt. Meanwhile, a state trooper testified he’d seen a broken-down car matching Pinkins’, and that he had offered a ride to three men walking nearby on an exit ramp, who had declined his offer.
Polly Beeson, director of the Marion County Arrestee Processing Center, said when she was a student in the Wrongful Conviction Clinic, she needed to be convinced of the men’s innocence. She later wrote briefs seeking post-conviction and habeas corpus relief. “We all reached our ‘aha moment’ at different times,” she said. “Every time someone else believed in their innocence, it gave them energy.”
For some, the “aha” moment came early. Others found their “aha” moment in the voluminous records detailing glaring problems, such as Pinkins’ defense counsel’s snoozing during his trial. The aha moment that persuaded Lake County prosecutor Bernard Carter to free Pinkins and not seek a new trial was a TrueAllele DNA test that excluded Pinkins. Victoria Bailey, now an appellate Marion County public defender, explained that at trial, the prosecution had only a single genetic sample that contained multiple profiles. Forensics at the time didn’t allow those profiles to be separated as the new test did.
“None of them belonged to Mr. Pinkins,” Bailey said.
Bailey worked on the case as a law student in 2002 and afterward on a pro bono basis, even drafting Pinkins’ unsuccessful cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. “The part that was hard in this case was I was so utterly convinced of Mr. Pinkins’ innocence,” she said.
She wasn’t able to be there when Pinkins was released, but she called Watson at the Lake County Jail. “I started crying on the phone,” she said. Though it’s been years since she’s worked on the case, Bailey said, “I would hope anyone would have the same reaction knowing that a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned has finally been set free.”
Case, professor shaped careers
Marion County deputy prosecutor Max Wiley also worked on the case with Beeson and others at the Wrongful Conviction Clinic. “I think the Pinkins case probably shaped the way we all practice law,” he said.
Marion County public defender Brenda Foglio began working on the case in 2004 and witnessed Pinkins’ release. “It’s a case that once you delve into, there is no forgetting it,” she said. “The more you read the transcripts, the more you understand that there’s been a terrible mistake. … I know we’ve all cried many times over the setbacks and losses during this case, but (Watson) never quit. And every time she got back up, the rest of us got back up.”
“This case taught me a lot of things about why what we do at the trial court is so important and why preservation of error is so important,” Bailey said. “For me as an attorney, not just the sense of importance of what we do but the work ethic that goes with it is something I learned from Fran,” Bailey said.
Beeson said Watson’s enthusiasm is infectious. “I chose to go to law school in Indianapolis because of her,” she said.
Back in the world
Pinkins is living at home now with his oldest son and getting to better know his youngest, who was born just a couple of months after Pinkins began serving his sentence. He’s hopeful his case sheds light on wrongful convictions. “I’ll be the whisperer,” he said.
“It’s been a little slow, but it’s progressing,” he said. “I’m still trying to knock down some major walls like employment, transportation. It’s taking time. Day by day.”
Pinkins said he’s grateful Watson was able to see his case through, though she characteristically deflects praise and says she was just doing her job. She credits the presence of TV cameras from CBS’ “48 Hours,” which is profiling the case, as a factor that may have expedited Pinkins’ release. And she said his case proves what she often tells students — “Just because something is presented in a courtroom doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Watson believes Indiana should join other states that set aside money to compensate people who have been wrongly imprisoned, and Pinkins agrees.
“The state becomes liable, to a certain extent,” he said. “It could have went any way, and I could have died in prison. … I pray that there is a change in attitude and in the law of dealing with this kind of situation.”•