Detectives with a Mission: Texas Exonerees Help the Wrongly Convicted

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True Convictions

Three Dallas exonerees (L-R), Johnnie Lindsey, Chris Scott and Steven Phillips, formed a detective agency to help the wrongfully convicted. Photo courtesy PBS

Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips served a combined 60 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. But when each of them was finally exonerated, they did more than just celebrate their newfound freedom. They decided to put their hard-won knowledge of the criminal justice system to help others in the same position, by forming a detective agency to do the kind of investigation that would otherwise be unaffordable to victims of wrongful convictions.

But their organization, called the  House of Renewed Hope, offers services not usually associated with private eyes. Not only does it fight for innocent people in prison; it supports the exonorees once they get out. Their story is told in “True Conviction,” a documentary directed by Jamie Meltzer, which is scheduled to be shown Monday on PBS stations.

Scott and Meltzer sat down recently to talk with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta about how the film was made, and about why it takes a combination of detective skills, patience, and persistence to succeed in their chosen mission.

The Crime Report: Jamie, how did you become aware of Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, and Steven Phillips, and the work they were doing on behalf of wrongly convicted people?

JAMIE MELTZER:  A friend named Michael May, who was a reporter in Texas, had done a story about the Dallas County exonorees. At that time, in 2012, there were more than 30 exonorees. Then he told me that Chris [Scott] and a few of the other guys, were about to start a detective agency, an investigation team to look into other wrongful convictions. I thought that was a brilliant, really interesting idea. As a documentary filmmaker you are looking for a really compelling story as a way to shed light on a larger criminal justice issue. This seemed like the perfect vehicle for that. Then I spent an afternoon with Chris and about a dozen other guys who were all exonerated. Just being in that room was really moving. It convinced me that this was a story that needed to be told.

TCR: And the criminal justice system was new to you?

MELTZER: I hadn’t had any experience with the criminal justice system or thinking about it too deeply. Like most people, until it affects you personally, it’s sort of unfathomable that what happened to these guys would happen. Of course, after you spend time with the exonorees, you realize it can happen to anyone. Steven Phillips is a white guy who is wrongfully convicted, but the film really is about structural racism in the criminal justice system. There are many more African Americans that this is happening to. It made me ashamed that I had never thought that this could be a danger.

TCR: Chris, can you talk more about your relationship with Steven, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 25 years on a sexual assault case? In the documentary you explain that Steven helped you out once you got out of prison in 2009. He gave you $20,000 to help you start your new life.

CHRIS SCOTT: Steven gave me that out of his compensation money because he [had gotten] out before me. He had already lived the experience of being an exonoree, and he knew the challenges it would take to get through those dark and trying times. He just pretty much took me under his wing and told me how to survive and live again. He said, “Don’t let getting wrongfully convicted hinder you.” [It’s] supposed to make you stronger, supposed to make you want to do things that help you change the criminal justice system. So his experience gave me my experience, and that $20,000 helped me from the time that I got out to the time I got compensated. That was just Steven’s good nature.

TCR: The documentary gets some incredible access that you wouldn’t typically see on screen.  For instance, there’s a moment when you visit Steven Phillips in jail after he gets arrested [a second time] because a police officer searches his car and finds drugs.

MELTZER: We were very persistent as a production team. When Chris and the guys want to interview someone for a case, it’s very hard to turn them down because they have such a compelling back story. As for me, the filmmaker, I would just follow up. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I remember within that jail environment Steven was in, he made really good friends with the warden because she understood his story. She was just a good person and she responded to the story.

SCOTT: Steven was dealing with a drug situation. When people get exonerated they still have demons that they are fighting and it’s easy to slip back into that mode, so being able to capture Steven in jail maybe did him some good because he knew we were there for him.

TCR: What happened to Steven’s case? The documentary ends before his case reaches a verdict.

MELTZER: It gets dismissed.

SCOTT: Illegal search and seizure.

Documentary filmmaker Jamie Meltzer learned about the House of Renewed Hope from a reporter at the Texas Observer. Photo courtesy PBS

MELTZER: Basically the police officer looked him up and somehow saw that he was convicted but he hadn’t been convicted because his record should be expunged.

SCOTT: I guess [the police] thought they had probable cause. He had a shotgun in the car window, and shotguns are legal [in TX], but maybe the cops were just suspicious. As Steven said, the cop Googled him and sees that he is a felon. Steven said, I am not, so the cop says OK, we are going to search your car. The judge dismissed him because he said it was evidence [obtained as] fruit of the poisonous tree. It should have never happened. He got really lucky. The crazy thing is Steven missed a trial date because he was in the casino, and the judge looked at his Facebook page and sees a picture of Steve at the casino the day he was supposed to be in trial, but the judge still let him make it. So in actuality you can look at [Steven’s case] as having that white privilege. Because if that was an African-American guy he would have been hung, and that’s why I am glad Steven is part of my team because it shows you the racial bias. Steve got away with it, but the average black guy is not going to get away with none of that. He is going to go to prison.

TCR: Do exonerees receive any form of help or support when they get out of prison?

SCOTT: Exonorees get nothing. It’s just like, “hey, we let you go.” [You don’t get compensated] until you get declared innocent.

TCR: Which can take a long time. How long did it take for you?

SCOTT: I think mine was the quickest. I think I got exonerated in 90 days. But other exonorees, it took them a year or two, or three or four years, to get fully exonerated. I think for me it was so quick because I was the first non-DNA case, and it was two of us, so they wanted to set a precedent. People with non-DNA cases now have a fighting chance. With me being released, it just showed them that even though you don’t have any DNA, you can actually be found innocent.

TCR: Chris, you were in prison for 13 years. During that time, did you think you would ever be exonerated?

SCOTT: At one particular time I didn’t, but as the years went on, I thought something has got to break, something has got to happen, but I never knew a guy that came back and confessed to capital murder, so that was the only thing I had to live for. I was wondering will the guy [the man responsible for the crimes] ever do it? Eventually he did.

TCR: How did he go about confessing the murders?

The first time he confessed was kind of weird because he confessed to my brother, not knowing the guy was my brother. My brother worked at the barber shop, and [the man] came into the barbershop talking about the case, and my brother overheard him and said this sounds like my little brother’s case. They ended up meeting in the yard and he showed him a picture of me, and he said, yeah, that’s the guy who’s in prison for me right now, Christopher Scott. But that happened in 2002, and I didn’t get released until 2009. I do seven more years.

TCR: What did your brother do with this information?

He wrote an affidavit and we sent it to the district attorney’s office, and their response was, there is no way we are going to accept this affidavit because we’ve never done a non-DNA case before. There is nothing to prove that you didn’t commit this crime. It took until 2006 until we got the first African-American district attorney in the state of Texas, Craig Watkins. He took it upon himself to see if there was anything he could do about this non-DNA case.

TCR: What was your experience like, getting out of prison after serving 13 years for a crime you didn’t commit?

SCOTT: Well, being in prison, everything is pretty much controlled. You’re in a controlled environment. You can only think so far out the box. And being free is having the freedom to do exactly what you want to do. It’s about cherishing those small things in life, and it’s crazy because in prison you are limited.

Steven said that when he first got out he stood in the potato chip aisle for about 45 minutes because he was mesmerized by the varieties. I was the same way with ice cream. In prison, you got vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, maybe Neapolitan, that’s it, you don’t have the sherbets, or the mixtures of ice cream, or the butter pecan, praline and cream.

TCR: Jamie, you started filming “True Conviction” in 2012, and what makes the documentary so compelling is that by following the lives of the three exonorees, viewers witness these incredible, often traumatic events unfold. Steven, for instance hadn’t been arrested when you first started filming. And you were filming the scene in court where Chris’ son gets sentenced to seven years in prison.

MELTZER: That’s the power of documentaries, you are along for a journey, and you connect with amazing things people are doing, like Chris and his team. Neither of us knew what was going to happen.

TCR: Chris, was there ever a moment where you were thinking, or you told Jamie, I don’t want this to be captured?

SCOTT: I wanted the world to see [how] me being taken away from [my son] at a young age affected him. Because at the age of 16 is when he caught his first charge, and went to prison for it. And him knowing I wasn’t there, he was like, you were all I had. Once you left I had no one to depend on, so he started depending on himself and turned to a life of crime.

I know that if I hadn’t been wrongfully imprisoned my son would have never [committed the crime].  I would have been able to raise him right, raise him properly in terms of doing the right thing in society. A lot of times when kids get in trouble it’s [because they are] from a broken home. Because their dads aren’t there to show them how to be a man. It triggered a lot of emotion. I wanted this to be captured because the world needs to see that this happens and it destroys [the lives of] everybody that it touches.

TCR: The documentary captures the cyclical nature of this destruction. There is a lot of footage of you caring, and raising your grandson.

SCOTT: My grandson is the same age that my kids were when I left [for prison].

TCR: The documentary follows the story of two men who claim to be wrongfully incarcerated, Max Soffar and Isaiah Hill.

SCOTT: Isaiah Hill’s case came to me because his cellmate wrote to me. He was accused of aggravated robbery over $150. The way he expressed himself about being falsely imprisoned, and then the emotions he had, [I knew] this is not a guy who is lying.  So I took it upon myself to help him as much as I could. We were working on Isaiah’s case for at least three years, trying to help him get exonerated. We located the guy who had supposedly committed the crime, Don Wallace.

TCR: After serving 40 years, Isaiah Hill wasn’t exonerated?

He got paroled because [Don Wallace] wouldn’t confess to the crime. There is no way in the world that [Isaiah Hill] committed these crimes because Isaiah is mentally challenged, he’s illiterate, so I don’t see him concocting something like this to commit a robbery. So from day one I believed him. He was locked up in Brownwood, TX. It’s a racist town. We came to realize that Isaiah was set up.  We even proposed to Don Wallace that we can get a letter from our attorney saying you won’t be recharged. But he would not do it. He said he had beaten nine aggravated robbery cases, and I was [thinking] –those nine cases you beat, you probably got nine innocent people in prison behind those nine robberies.

TCR: Because he wasn’t exonerated, besides not getting his name cleared, Isaiah didn’t get compensated?

SCOTT: He can’t get compensated.

MELTZER: He gets social security.

SCOTT: We made sure he got some kind of income.

MELTZER: But he’s doing really well. He got out in 2016, and it took a year after that to get the ankle monitor off.

SCOTT: And now he’s married.

TCR: And what about Max Soffar, who maintained he was wrongfully accused of committing a triple homicide in a Houston bowling alley?

SCOTT: He was on death row for almost 40 years. Michael May, the reporter from The Texas Observer who brought us to Jamie’s attention, told me about him. When I first encountered [Soffar] I believed him.  Because for a person to give you that much detail about the case I got the feeling he was telling the truth. Like we said in the documentary, Max Soffar was a habitual liar. He fabricated a lot of stories, so I think they just got tired of him crying wolf, and eventually they closed the case.

TCR: He was convicted based on his confession, which has been proven to be an unreliable method of extracting information.

He had three different confessions, and none of the confessions met each other, or had anything to do with the case itself. But when you have a prosecutor who said God made him convict Max Soffar without any physical evidence, then you know there is a problem. How can god allow you to convict somebody without any evidence, and allow him to be put on death row? We had a prime suspect [Paul Reid], but he died on death row of natural causes.

MELTZER: We went to Nashville and met the public defender for Paul Reid. There’s a scene about him in the film. He killed eight people in a similar way, so Chris and the guys interview a couple of people who know different things about Paul Reid, and there’s a lot of evidence. If he was alive they would have gone to him.

TCR: And Paul Reid was already in prison for the other murders he committed?

SCOTT: He had seven death sentences.

TCR: So if Reid was already in prison, what did he have to lose by admitting to the murders Soffar was wrongfully serving time for? His silence kept an innocent man in prison.

SCOTT: I just think a lot of people don’t want to confess. This guy already had seven sentences, why not come forward and confess, but it’s just him feeling that that’s the one he got away with.

MELTZER: Well, he also said he was innocent of the things that he did do. He wouldn’t want to admit to having done this other thing when he hadn’t even admitted doing the crimes he was convicted for.

TCR: But in Paul Reid’s case there was evidence that pointed to his culpability?

MELTZER: There’s a lot of evidence that points to it, the problem was that at Max’s trial they wouldn’t let him bring up anything about Paul Reid.  If Max hadn’t died, there was about to be an appeal.

SCOTT: Yeah, in three days.

MELTZER: They could have brought that up in a new trial, and maybe the jury would have thought differently of the confession.

SCOTT: One of the key witnesses never got a chance to testify and new evidence was discovered before he died. We knew Max didn’t do it; we just didn’t have enough to prove that he didn’t do it.

TCR: Did you know when you first met him that he was sick?

SCOTT: No, not when we first interviewed him, but a year or so later we found out that he had liver cancer.

TCR: At Max Soffar’s funeral, which the documentary captures, Chris, you say in his eulogy, “the state killed him.”

SCOTT: He was trying to get exonerated and get better health care. Maybe he could have gotten compensated and paid medical bills for his cancer treatment. But he didn’t make it.

I think they kept him on death row just because they knew he was going to die. Why waste money putting the juice in his arm when he is going to die eventually? Why waste money on someone who is already dying?

MELTZER: At that point, it’s not in the film, but Chris, Johnnie, Steven, and some lawyers from the ACLU got together and went to Austin with more than 150,000 signatures on behalf of Max and tried to get a compassionate release. He was going to die, but you know, let him die at home with people who care about him.

SCOTT: But the governor at the time was Rick Perry and he wouldn’t allow it.

TCR: Did you ever meet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry on issues of wrongful convictions?

SCOTT: Yeah, a couple of times. I didn’t like him then, I don’t like him now. The only time we really met him was dealing with the legislation of compensation, he signed the Timothy Cole Act.

TCR: Your organization is billed as a detective agency, but the services you, Johnnie, and Steven provide extend far beyond investigative work. You provide each other with emotional and financial support as well.

SCOTT: I just put myself as the man with many faces, you know? Because at the end of the day, you have to be a detective, you have to be a counselor, you have all those faces, because even dealing with someone like Isaiah Hill, we had to make sure he was right. We had to make sure we got his birth certificate, his social security card, identification. We had to make sure he had his doctor’s appointments. Made sure he got his meds, so we were doctors, lawyers. We were everything to Isaiah, and to our other clients we are the same way.

TCR: Johnnie, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 26 years on sexual assault charges, died since the documentary came out. Chris, do you want to talk about him?

 Johnnie had the same passion I had, to free as many people as we can before we leave this world.  And Johnnie was the guy who asked good tough questions, but was able to reason with people. We were like good cop, bad cop. I think I was the bad one because I pretty much applied the pressure. He’s pretty nurturing, he looked for the good in pretty much everybody.

TCR: Since Johnnie’s death, have you had any other exonerees come on board? How are you at House of Renewed Hope managing this workload?

SCOTT: No, I didn’t bring any new exonorees on because our visions are different. We all have different things that we’re good at. Some are good with lobbying with legislation; some are good with reentry, some with investigating cases. I think we all got out and got our own feel of things. You know, I had Steven and Johnnie to help me, but the majority of the people who helped me get exonerated from the district attorney office also work with my organization.

TCR: Although exoneration is the ultimate goal, life post-exoneration is full of challenges. As an exonerated person, is your record fully expunged or do you face the same barriers in registering to vote and finding employment—answering questions about former incarceration on official forms for instance—as someone whose been formerly incarcerated?

I vote every year. My record is expunged. I don’t check any boxes. Some exonorees are not fully exonerated, so they have to check that box, but most of us don’t.

MELTZER: But a lot of exonorees still have the same challenges. Johnnie was in prison for 26 years, and Steven 25 years, and they got out as older men with all that time taken away from them and no way to develop a career. And Chris has done all sorts of entrepreneurial things since he got out, but he’s also had this time taken away from him. From 27 to 40, that’s a pretty important time to develop a career.

That’s the whole point of the compensation, and why it’s needed. If you are struggling with PTSD, you actually need more support. That’s the thing, the parolees get support, they get a little bit of money, it’s not necessarily a great program, but it’s something. Exonorees just get out, that’s why [Chris’ organization] is so important.

TCR: Right, there is not a state-supported system for exonorees, unless they start one for themselves.

SCOTT: Yeah, I think a lot of people look up at Dallas County exonorees because of the [foundation] that we’ve laid. It’s a brotherhood. It’s no longer about us, we’re out, and we’ve been compensated. We’ve been living our lives for 10 years now. We want to pave the way for the men and women who’ve been left behind. Things are much better now than when we first got out. There are more exonorees that you can go to for support and help. We can be each other’s psychiatrists. I can lay on your couch, you can lay on mine, and I can pick your brain because I know pretty much the questions to ask you. What’s going to make you mad? What’s going to trigger your anger? What makes you happy?

And kudos to the women who deal with us because we are screwed up. We are not whole. There is something still missing. I don’t think we’ll ever be completely whole again.

“True Conviction” will air on PBS Channel 13 on Monday, April 30th at 10 pm EST and can be live streamed here. Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR contributor. She welcomes comments from readers.

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