Charges Dropped Against Dallas Man Serving Life Sentence

Willie Thomas with his mother Barbara | Image by Innocence Project of Texas
Willie Thomas with his mother Barbara | Image by Innocence Project of Texas

After fighting a capital murder conviction for over a decade, a Dallas man was finally cleared by the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office this week.

Thanks to a plea deal reached between the DA and his court-appointed attorney last month, 41-year-old Willie Thomas is now a free man.

“He’s a very forward-looking person,” said Caitlin Gilbert, an attorney with Innocence Project of Texas, who helped Thomas challenge his conviction, per KERA News. “I think he’s overall pretty optimistic and just glad not to be under the conditions of bond any longer.“

Thomas was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2011 after being found guilty of fatally shooting Willie Walker, the manager of the New Start Club in Fort Worth, during a robbery in January 2009. His conviction hinged on the words of two other men involved in the robbery and a potential DNA match on the trigger of the murder weapon.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, Thomas requested that the DNA evidence be reanalyzed using more updated technology in 2015. The new testing undermined the forensic evidence, leading to Thomas’ release on bond in 2021.

“So much of DNA analysis now is interpreting mixtures,” Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas and Thomas’ lead counsel, told KERA News.

“There’s just a whole lot of room for error there, and the scientific advances in that interpretation of mixture process has made all the difference in the world over the last couple of years. And it did in Willie’s case,” he said.

In November 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Thomas’ conviction based on the new DNA evidence. However, the ball was left in the DA’s court as to whether to dismiss the case or put Thomas on trial again for Walker’s murder.

Having opted for the former, the DA was still left to deal with Thomas’ participation in the robbery. The recent plea deal involves Thomas pleading guilty to robbery charges and the DA giving him credit for the decade he already spent behind bars.

Massive advances in DNA technology have helped to both overturn wrongful convictions and bring guilty parties to justice.

Earlier this year, forensic genealogy, which is a technique that involves looking at public DNA databases to match crime scene evidence to suspects’ relatives, solved a murder in Garland dating back nearly 40 years ago.

As covered by The Dallas Express, 37-year-old Barbara Fay Villarreal had been found stabbed to death in her home in the 3600 block of Colbath Street on November 7, 1986. Investigators eventually came to a dead end after testing DNA evidence collected at the scene against that of Villarreal’s husband, who was not a match.

However, using forensic genealogy, Garland detectives discovered that Villarreal’s husband was actually related to his wife’s murderer. In March, 86-year-old Liborio Canales, the victim’s brother-in-law, pleaded guilty to murder charges and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In Dallas, murders jumped by 15.4% in 2023, according to data from the City’s crime analytics dashboard. As of June 5, the City has logged 90 criminal homicides this year. The Dallas City Council opted to approve the Dallas Police Department a budget of just $654 million this fiscal year, significantly less than what is being spent on law enforcement in other high-crime cities like Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles.

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