By Lisa Maria Garza
DALLAS (Reuters) - A 57-year-old Texas man who spent 12 years in prison for rape was exonerated on Friday, with legal experts saying his case marked the first time someone has been cleared of a crime by DNA testing that was not requested by the convicted person.
Michael Phillips was released from prison in 2002 and prosecutors said his innocence was proven through a new program by the Dallas County district attorney's office to analyze untested rape kits, even if the defendant does not make a request.
"Untested rape kits should not just sit on a shelf and collect dust. The exoneration continues to expose the past weakness in our criminal justice system,” Dallas County prosecutor Craig Watkins said in a statement.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Phillips' case marks the first time in the United States an exoneration of this nature has occurred. The group said the case became the 34th exoneration by the Dallas District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit.
Phillips was exonerated at a hearing on Friday. The actual culprit in the 1990 rape of a 16-year-old girl was identified through the DNA testing but cannot be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired, officials said.
The man lived in the same motel as Phillips and the victim.
Philips was identified in a lineup by the victim and said his attorney urged him to accept a plea deal because a jury likely would not side with a black man accused of raping a white teenage girl, the National Registry of Exonerations said.
After his release in 2002, he spent an additional six months in jail for failing to register as a sex offender. During that time, Philips challenged his conviction in court but when that failed, he gave up trying to clear his name.
He has been living in a nursing home, wheelchair bound from sickle-cell anemia.
"I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared. I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me,” Phillips said in a statement.
Under Texas law, Phillips is entitled to $80,000 compensation for each year of wrongful conviction plus an additional $80,000 each year for life.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Trott)