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‘I Still Want My Name Cleared’: Texas Black Man Seeks Exoneration After Spending 20 Years In Prison for Murder Conviction Based on Dubious Evidence

Edward Ates, 54, of Waxahachie, Texas, still maintains his innocence as his fight for his full exoneration continues nearly four years after being released from a Texas prison where he served 20 years for a crime it appears the police had no credible evidence he committed. “I still want my name cleared and I’m still fighting,” Ates said.

In July 1993 in New Chapel Hill, Texas about eight miles east of Tyler, Texas, Elnora Griffin, 47, was stabbed to death. Griffin and Ates were neighbors at the time, court documents say Griffin put up a fight and amid the struggle she lost control of her bowels.

The medical examiner testified, “Griffin was grabbed by the neck and it’s common for someone to defecate as a result of such pressure.” Later in the investigation, police tried to link a perceived footprint in the feces back to Ates.

Ates says police based their case on feces on his shoe. He was arrested and charged with Griffin’s murder and although he was released from jail on bond a few months later, his trial didn’t take place until July 1996. In that trial, the judge declared the case a mistrial.

In August 1998, prosecutors tried Ates again focusing on the feces except this time the jury was all-white, and Ates was found guilty and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Ates says he kept his thoughts about life outside of prison to a minimum and focused much of time on basketbal,l which he says helped get him through his days behind bars. “When I get ready to play and start playing, you can zone everything else out,” Ates said of basketball.

In 2015, Ates’ case got a second life after the “Truth and Justice” podcast took an interest in his case. The podcast host, Bob Ruff, contacted Ates, and the two forged a friendship, although Ates admits he was reluctant and skeptical at first, fearing Ruff was a solicitor upon their initial contact. Ruff also got the Innocence Project of Texas involved with the case.

“He said, ‘I’m going to get you out of here, it’s going to take me a while, but I know you didn’t do this and I’m going to help you,’” Ates said Ruff told him in a conversation.

Through the Innocence Project of Texas, attorney Allison Clayton met Ates and began to investigate the case. She was drawn to the case in part because of “the lack of any kind of objective evidence most crime scenes will contain especially crime scenes as violent as this one,” Clayton said.

Clayton worked to prove Ates’ innocence and she got the Smith County District Attorney to agree to retesting the feces on his shoe.

“Then we can come back with DNA testing all these years later and say, definitively, that is not Elnora on the bottom of that shoe and once that happens, you have zero evidence biologically putting Ed at the scene of this crime,” Clayton said.

After the Innocence Project of Texas independent DNA test couldn’t pin Ates’ to the feces believe to be from Griffin, the tide began to turn in Ates’ favor.

“The District Attorney said, that was huge for me, and I can see why it would be because if you are trusting your expert and your expert is saying, that’s her poop on the bottom of the shoe, yeah, I can see how that could be damning,” Clayton added.

As Clayton worked on the forensics of Ates’ case, the podcast lobbied too by asking listeners to send in letters to the Texas parole board who were set to review Ates’ case.

Although Ates was denied parole twice previously because he refused to admit to a crime he says he didn’t commit, this time around, the added support granted him enough support from the parole board and his release from prison.

“He said, I’m so happy for you Ed, congratulations, you made parole, you’re going home,” Ates said after learning of his impending release from prison after 20 years incarcerated.

Since being released on parole, Ates has reunited with his son and daughter and his wife. He also uses his experience with the justice system to help steer young Black boys away from trouble through mentorship and a mutual love of basketball.

Ates is also helping shine a light on a lingering problem plaguing Black communities and their relationship with the criminal justice system. “We just did a documentary yesterday with Hulu,” Ates said.

“Our system is not broken, our system is functioning perfectly, it is doing exactly what it was designed to do which is to put people of color into a situation where they are outside of our society,” Clayton said of the disparities persistent within the criminal justice system.

Clayton estimates millions of people, mostly Black and brown are faced with wrongful convictions and more attention must be brought to the issue. The National Registry of Exonerations says since 1989, 3,000 people have been exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit. Although African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. Black people are also 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people.

Ates says for people who find themselves in the situation he was in for 20 years, remain hopeful. “Just keep the faith and hope you know,” he said.

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