2015 Archives

SMU law students help man convicted of murder on bite mark go free

The Innocence Clinic helps show junk science used to put Steven Mark Chaney behind bars for 25 years


The following is from the Oct. 12, 2015, edition of The Dallas Morning News.

SMU's Innocence Clinic Team

Left to right Jared Fontenot (student), Prof. Victoria Palacios, Jillian Bliss (student), Steven Chaney (client), Kassandra Nelson (student), Kristine Cruz (student), Christina Phillips (student), Joshua Avila (student) and Julie Lesser (Exoneration Attorney with Dallas Co. Public Defender)

Left to right: Jared Fontenot (student), Prof. Victoria Palacios, Jillian Bliss (student), Steven Chaney (client), Kassandra Nelson (student), Kristine Cruz (student), Christina Phillips (student), Joshua Avila (student) and Julie Lesser (Exoneration Attorney with Dallas Co. Public Defender).

About the Case

In the case of Steven Mark Chaney, students from the Innocence Clinic in SMU's Dedman School of Law reviewed the transcripts from both of his trials as well as the Brady notice from the state.  Brady refers to the requirement that prosecutors turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. The students assisted with the Brady portion of the writ that released Chaney by doing research and drafting proposed writ language.  

Supervising Attorney Julie Lesser said of their contribution, "Their input has been quite creative and I'm impressed with the whole group!"

About the Innocence Clinic

Through the Innocence Clinic, Dedman Law School and the Dallas County Public Defender Office have joined together in the battle against wrongful convictions.

Innocent people have gone to prison because an eyewitness misidentified someone, because "junk science" really exists, because a person can be coerced into making a false confession or because informants lie to implicate defendants in exchange for benefits from the state.

Students in the clinic seek evidence of these wrongdoings years after the wrongful convictions and work to exonerate their clients.

The students are supervised by Associate Law Professor Victoria Palacios, and the clinic is made possible by the support and leadership of Law Professor Jennifer M. Collins, the Judge James Noel Dean of Dedman School of Law.

October 14, 2015

Staff Writer

Steven Mark Chaney wasn’t formally exonerated of murder Monday. But the celebratory nature of a hearing where he was freed after serving more than 25 years in prison made it clear that Chaney and his supporters believe that day is near.

Among the evidence: pumpkin pie from the judge, other exonerees pledging help, laughter and applause in a Dallas County courtroom.

Most important, though, state District Judge Dominique Collins agreed with Chaney’s attorneys and Dallas County prosecutors that the bite mark comparisons used to connect him to the 1987 slaying of Dallas couple, John and Sally Sweek, are based on junk science.

Free for the first time in decades, Chaney greated his family members outside the courtroom with bear hugs and kisses as a throng of reporters and cameras watched.

“I haven’t gotten to hug my mom,” Chaney exclaimed as he squeezed his mother, Darla Chaney, and kissed the top of her head. He enthusiastically embraced his four brothers as his wife of 25 years, Lenora Chaney, stood by his side. . . 

Dentist Jim Hales told a Dallas County jury in 1987 that there was a “1 to a million” chance that someone other than Chaney made the bite marks found on John Sweek’s body.

That was enough to convict Chaney, despite testimony from nine friends who said that they saw Chaney the day of the slayings and that he couldn’t have killed the Sweeks. Lesser said Chaney was with his wife that day.

Now, Hales has backtracked and says the science used to convict Chaney has been discredited.

(Attorney Julie) Lesser and the New York-based Innocence Project asked (State District Judge Dominique) Collins to release him based on the new bite mark evidence and allegations of prosecutor misconduct, including withholding evidence and eliciting false testimony. A hearing will be held later to determine the validity of those allegations. The law requires prosecutors to turn over any evidence that could benefit a defendant during his trial.

Read the full story.