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Dallas exoneree, Chris Scott, looks back on ten years of freedom with renewed hope

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Chris Scott in downtown Dallas, 2019 | By David Downs

Originally published in the August 2019 issue under the title “Land of the Freed”

Every so often as he speaks, Christopher Scott touches the heavy silver ring on his left pinky finger. It has the bold, square heft of a Superbowl ring. He’s not the same person he was 20 years ago. Today, he’s a grandfather, and an international face for wrongful conviction. He’s grown used to spotlights, and he doesn’t waste time. One doesn’t, after losing 13 years of their life.

“From the beginning, my case was strange,” he explains. Thinking back to that night, tracing his steps from his job in the produce section of a local grocery store, to the home he shared with his girlfriend and his two small kids, to the moment he left the house again, what strikes him first is the sense of random chance. The turn his life took was a simple consequence of being near a wrong place at the wrong time. It was a night of bad fortune that started off with an innocent phone call, the taste of soda, and then helicopter wind and the clicks of ten guns pointing at him in the quiet of a friend’s living room. 

“I had a decent job that paid well, a nice apartment. I was raising my kids,” he says. He had a reliable, successful life in Dallas. And then two strangers were murdered across town and soon, he had nothing at all.

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Chris Scott in front of the Dallas skyline, 2019 | By David Downs

On the evening of April 6, 1997, 25-year-old Christopher Scott was relaxing at home when an acquaintance, Claude Simmons, called him out of the blue. They weren’t close. Chis had first met Claude through his girlfriend. He sometimes saw him at the grocery store; Claude would come by, and they’d talk. Chris made sure Clause bought himself some fresh fruit; Claude sometimes talked to Chris about his struggle to get clean. After a childhood in the projects, Chris, not a user himself, was well-acquainted with the fight. Claude seemed to be comfortable opening up to him. 

Usually, Chris stayed in with his kids in the evenings, but that night, Claude seemed to need a friend; he called a few times before Chris agreed to drive over and pick him up. 

“He was struggling,” Chris recalls. “I didn’t want that on my conscious.” 

By the time Chris turned on Claude’s street, the North Dallas night was already lit up with red and blue sirens. Chris pulled up outside Claude’s place and honked twice, and they drove a few blocks to 7/11 for a couple of sodas. 

More than 20 years later, Chris still remembers the way the chaos on the street had swollen, helicopters hovering in the air above them, spotlights beaming down onto the cars. As they cruised back down Claude’s street, Chris noticed a cop car pull a quick U-turn, slipping up behind them. Wary, Chris decided to wait inside with Claude and his family until it died down. 

Then, from outside, the cops ordered them out of the house. 

“Come out for what? We didn’t do anything.” Chris recalls the house, full of confusion, fear and the panic of children. Chris looked out the window. The entire length of Claude’s street was blocked off by police cars and vans, huddled with their noses pointed at the house, which was surrounded by officers with flashlights. They opened the door. The cops burst in, and found Chris, sitting on the couch. He found himself staring down the barrels of nine or ten guns. 

“What’s going on?” he asked. 

“Come outside,” one of the officers replied, “And we’ll tell you.” 

Throughout the course of that night, as it turned into early morning, Chris, Claude, and every other African American man who fit their description were lined up on the street. It started with eight men, all of whom were made to lay down on the ground. The police officers were taciturn, saying only that a woman would soon be driven by, and if she couldn’t identify Chris, they had to let him go. Chris lay on the ground, thinking about how he’d be home soon while listening to a police scanner drone about two suspects loose in the night. Two African American men, one tall, one short, dark skin, low haircut. It could have been just about any Blackman in the city and as more and more people were lined up, it felt like every single Black man in the city was a suspect. 

After a while, the police picked 25 of the men, and took them down to the Crimes against Persons (CAPERS) building. It was cold inside, artificial and overly air-conditioned. Chris held still as some liquid was poured on his hands and he was ordered to dip them in a bag. Later, he’d realize that it was a test for gunshot residue. 

All of the men were put on one side of a room. Chris alone was handcuffed to the bench. From the other side of a big window, a woman he’d never seen before approached, an officer beside her. He watched, and though he couldn’t hear, it looked as if they were discussing a man who had killed the woman’s husband.

I can’t believe they just said what I thought they said, Chris told himself. 

The woman was Cedlia Escobedo. Earlier in the night, before Chris left his home to pick up Claude, Escobedo and her husband, Alfonzo Aguilar, were sleeping in a friend’s duplex when two men broke in, looking for drugs that were stashed there. One of the men demanded money while the gunman sexually assaulted Escobedo. During the attack, Aguilar bolted, and the gunman shot and killed him. They fled with a little crack and around $180, leaving Escobedo terrorized, but alive. 

When Escobedo first came to the police station to view suspects, including Chris, she passed a room where a handcuffed Claude Simmons was being interrogated for an unrelated drug offense, and said she recognized him as one of the attackers. Later, she also selected the photograph of Chris as the man who assaulted her and shot her husband, before she even came to the room to see Chris there, handcuffed to a bench and clueless.

When Chris was taken to be interrogated, he asked what was going on. Instead of giving him an answer, the detectives asked him where the drugs were. Drugs had been the motive behind the murder of Aguilar and the theory was that Chris wasn’t as innocent as he seemed, instead a feared drug kingpin. 

Chris laughed, incredulous, when he heard it. “What kingpin do you know who works as a produce seller at a grocery store?” 

For the next five and a half hours, Chris was questioned about drugs—there were none on him—and a warrant was executed for his house, which was turned upside down, looking for drugs or any clues to tie him to Aguilar and Escobedo. The search came up empty. But  Escobedo had already identified him. 

One officer, a white man, stopped Chris. “Mr. Scott,” he said soberly. “I don’t believe you committed this crime. You’re well dressed, well-groomed, driving a nice car, uncashed paycheck stub in your pocket. This is the crime of a dope fiend; you don’t fit. I’ll testify that I don’t believe you’re guilty, but you’re going to jail for capital murder.”

At 25, Chris was arraigned and given a $1 million bond. It was far more money than he could offer up. He would spend the eight months leading to the trial incarcerated. That evening, when Chris met with his state-appointed attorney, he begged for a polygraph test. 

“Yes, you could take one, but no I won’t let you,” his attorney replied. “You might not pass it. What if you don’t pass it?”  

Chris looked at him for a long moment. “Sir, we’re starting off on the wrong foot because you don’t believe me,” he said. “An attorney who believes his client wouldn’t stop him from taking a polygraph.” Though Chris asked for a new attorney, he was told that he was entitled only to a defense; It didn’t have to be a good one. 

Meanwhile, outside of his cell, people from the neighborhood began to trickle into the station, telling the police that Chris was innocent and offering up other suspects instead. Two names that came up frequently were Alonzo Hardy and Don Michael Anderson. But the police were satisfied; they had their men in Christopher Scott, and Claude Simmons.

Chris still wasn’t afraid. He hadn’t lost faith in the system, even if he never did get his polygraph. There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime, not a shred of DNA, no fingerprints, nothing to incriminate him except for Escobedo’s testimony. For eight months, he waited for the trial he believed would free him. His kids had no idea. His parents, girlfriend and siblings had been so sure that it would all be resolved any day, that they told his children that their father was simply out of town and that soon he’d be back home. 

Chris and Claude were tried separately, days apart, in October 1997. From the moment the jury selection began, Chris’s hope started to rot. The first pool of potential jurors, 30 total, were asked whether eyewitness testimony was sufficient to find Chris guilty. All 30 said that it wasn’t enough. So those potential jurors were dismissed. Another group of 30 was brought in, but they concurred with the first. They were dismissed as well. The third group remained. The only African American woman stood up and said that she had to be dismissed because she and Chris used to date. Chris stared at her. He had never seen her before in his life. She was dismissed too. 

Forty-five minutes later, Chris faced an all white jury, a white judge and a white prosecutor. His own lawyer was white too. 

“I said to myself, I’m going to be convicted. I’m going to be judged by the color of my skin,” Chris remembers. “It’s a bad epidemic. [Our system is] flawed against people of color.” He’d never understood, not fully, until he sat with them all staring down at him. 

Before the trial began, Chris stood before the judge, numb with dread, and she asked him if there was any reason she shouldn’t seek the death penalty.

“How could you kill an innocent man?” he answered desperately. 

The judge examined him with a measuring gaze. “Mr. Scott, you’ve saved your own life,” she said. “We won’t kill you, but we’re going to give you a life sentence.” He swallowed the sickening urge to thank her for sparing him. 

Despite being a capital murder case, the actual trial was a tight two hours. There was, after all, very little in the way of evidence to present and though his defense attorney attempted to introduce evidence that two other men committed the crime—one of them, Alonzo Hardy, had even admitted it to a girlfriend—the judge refused to allow it. The attorneys were actors to him, each trying to outperform the other. It wasn’t the truth that won the day, but the best storyteller, and Chris’s life was the prize. 

Without knowing that there were any other credible suspects, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding him guilty on October 16, 1997. Five days later, in his own trial, Claude Simmons would be found guilty as well; his jury only deliberated six minutes. Both were run in and out as quick as a carwash.

Chris wasn’t surprised when the gavel rang guilty.  At least he could fight for his freedom. He had the rest of his life to chase it.

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Chris Scott celebrates freedom, 2019 | By David Downs

From the moment Scott stepped into prison, his only goal was survival. At 130 pounds, He was thin, dealing with guys “two or three times his size,” so he asked for a job in the kitchen where he could eat and start putting on weight. He put peanut butter on everything he ate. On more than one occasion, he had to fight for his life and his pride, or risk becoming an easy target. He had to accept that he would be unsafe every day for the rest of his life, until he was free or dead. 

“I built a foundation to keep me sane,” Chris says, tapping the side of his head. “You can imprison my body, not my mind.” When he wasn’t working, he lifted weights and read every book in sight. For 13 years, he read at least three books a week, everything from criminal law books and crime novels—he was particularly moved by John Grisham’s The Innocent Man—to Nora Roberts. He also, like many of the other inmates, became engrossed by soap operas. The harmless, high-key drama of soap operas offered pure escapism, in hour-long portions. 

He learned about the legal system between the pages of his books, until he understood the flaws in his treatment and trial. DNA was all the rage, and every overturned wrongful conviction he could find was done so with DNA. Chris’s case had no DNA, nothing to prove he was there, but now, nothing that could prove he wasn’t there. He pored through the resources in the prison’s law library, looking for someone—anyone—who was exonerated without the help of new DNA testing. But there was no one whose example he could follow. Even The Innocence Project rejected Chris’s case due to the lack of DNA evidence. 

“I thought I was stuck for the rest of my life,” Chris says. “And I’m there with other men saying the same thing, that they were in for crimes they didn’t commit.” 

Since 2001, there have been 36 exonerated people in Dallas County. Chris knows most of them; in fact, he met a handful of them when they were behind bars in the same unit at the same time, where they compared notes on their cases, what they wished they had known, or what progress could be made. It was shocking to know he wasn’t alone, that his incarceration was far from an anomaly. He wondered who would get out first, and if whoever it was would remember the men he left behind. 

Five years passed, the rest of his 20s, without a change in his case, until 2002, when, at Eastham prison in East Texas, Alonzo Hardy sat down in a barber’s chair, and started talking to the inmate cutting his hair. Two years after the murder which Chris was convicted for, Hardy was arrested for robbery and given a 30-year prison sentence. But, he told his barber, there was one crime he’d committed, possibly his worst crime, and he’d gotten away with it. He and a friend of his, Don Michael Anderson, had robbed and murdered a crack dealer in Dallas. Hardy had wanted to simply buy drugs, but Anderson had blood on his mind. They shot Aguilar stealing around $180 and some crack, and skipped town immediately afterward. Someone else was serving time for it. 

The man cutting his hair paused. “It sounds like you’re talking about my baby brother,” he said. 

“No, can’t be,” Hardy assured him. “It’s a dude named Chris Scott.”

The man put down his scissors. “Chris Scott is my brother.”

Hardy knew everything about Chris—his name, his girlfriend’s name, where he’d worked, how many kids he had, the kind of car he’d driven—and later he would tell Chris that he regretted leaving him in prison, but that he hadn’t wanted to face a life sentence. If he hadn’t happened to sit in that barber chair that day, he might have kept his silence forever. Eventually, Hardy was convinced to sign an affidavit stating his guilt and Chris’s innocence, in a deal that added a mere five years to his sentence. But it was too late. All Chris ever received was a letter acknowledging Hardy’s confession but adding that Chris’s case was a non-DNA case, not open to reexamination, and to please stop sending paperwork. 

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  For three more years, Chris was forgotten again, until, in 2005, a group of students at the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network took on the case and began re-investigating. They soon discovered that Hardy had told a girlfriend that he and a man named Don Michael Anderson had committed the crime. Anderson’s name was a familiar one. After Chris’s arrest, neighbors had fingered him and Hardy as the culprits. Chris’s case was sent back to the DA’s office in 2008. But this time, there was a new DA in town, Craig Watkins, the first African American DA in the state of Texas.

“[When he won his election] the whole prison, everyone, jumped up like we won the Superbowl. Finally, a DA who knows our struggle,” Chris recalls. Watkins was honest and forthright, promising change from the very start. He openly spoke about how on his first day of work, he was asked to throw away evidence and destroy DNA from old cases. He refused. Watkins was a hero, single-handedly overturning wrongful convictions, and righting the wrongs of a more prejudiced past. He was balanced and sparing in his use of the death penalty, personally averse to it, but conceding that in truly horrific cases, it was more important to do right by a family seeking justice than right by himself. He was the kind of DA that often seems to show up only on television, who truly fights for the innocent, no matter where they’re found, a DA everyone could get behind. 

In his personal life, Watkins’ trademark audacity sometimes made him a loose cannon: his tenure was also marked by a suspended law license due to unpaid dues, plowing a car into the side of his own house and an infamous $3,000 tuxedo that was allegedly bought with campaign funds. But to wrongfully convicted people in Texas, he was what they had longed for: a DA who might understand the terror of being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Under Watkins’ tenure, more than 30 people were exonerated, and the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the country was established within the Dallas County DA’s office to increase oversight and investigate claims of wrongful conviction.

With Watkins at the helm, Chris had hope like he hadn’t had in 13 years. Maybe this time, with a group of 18-year-old students on his side, and a DA determined to right wrongful convictions, he stood a chance.  

It wasn’t long before Chris received a letter from the DA’s office. At first, he couldn’t bear to open it, standing and staring at it, too afraid that it was his final rejection to take a chance at freedom. 

One of the correctional officers spotted him. “Scott, what are you doing?” 

Chris explained to him what the letter was, that for better or worse, it was his last shot, and how he couldn’t bear it if the news was bad. 

The officer said, “If you’re truly innocent the way you’ve been saying for the last 13 years, you’d better open the letter.” 

Hardy had passed his polygraph. Chris had been given a new attorney, and his case was reopened. A month later, his mother came to see him, tears glistening in her eyes. “This may be the last time I ever come visit you here,” she said. “Next time I see you, you might be getting out.” 

Chris went into prison a 25-year-old man, barely an adult. He left 13 years later with diabetes and high blood pressure—due to the state of prison food—to face a reinvestigation. His lawyers cautioned him that they believed him but it wasn’t up to them. He’d have to pass a polygraph. 

Chris could have laughed, or cried. “I asked for a polygraph 13 years ago,” he said. 

“The justice system’s wheels run slow but they do run,” they replied. “Here’s your chance. There are 24 cops waiting for you to fail. Pass this and go home to your kids.” 

No non-DNA case had ever led to an exoneration before. If Chris passed, he would be setting a major precedent for a lot of people with cases like his. He spent six hours in what looked to him like an electric chair, strapped in with heart moniters while he was questioned about the night of the murder. By the end, he scored so well that there was no question. Chris wouldn’t be returning to prison, and the next time he stepped foot in a courtroom, it would be to set him free.

One investigator, who later would become a friend, paused him at the door to tell him that there were police officers, the ones who had been waiting for him to fail, now lined up to shake his hand. “You don’t have to shake even one of their hands,” he murmured before they left. 

“I didn’t want to shake their hands,” Chris says. “I just wanted to go home.” So they walked out together, politely facing forward, into the sunlight. 

On October 21, 2009, Chris and Claude were officially released from prison, and Hardy and Anderson were charged with their crimes. In March of 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared both men innocent, and offered them compensation. Though it couldn’t give them the years of their lives back, it could offer a fresh start and a clean slate.

“It was the best day of my life,” Chris recalls. “I started crying. My soul was cleansed. I was like a brand new baby.” At 40, Chris could live again.

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Chris Scott shows the ring that symbolizes his freedom, 2019 | By David Downs

Chris met Hardy once after his exoneration. He told him everything he’d missed in his life, every milestone in his children’s life, about the woman he’d loved who had married another man in his absence, about his youth wasted. Hardy listened. Finally, Hardy said that he would never recover, and that instead of signing the deal that added five years to his sentence, he wished he’d taken the burden of Chris’s life sentence. It would have been fair. 

A lot changes in 13 years. Children become teenagers. VHS tapes are replaced with DVDs, and home phones are slowly swallowed in a sea of cell phones. Chris had always gone to the counter to pay for gas with cash and now, every penny of his compensation was accessible with a slim credit card. The first time he was handed a cell phone, he asked what it was for. Everything, he was told. Maps were obsolete; he could use his cell phone for that too, which proved to be especially useful, because the city he’d known by heart had changed around him, highways rising and growing. Life hadn’t waited for him.

“I didn’t recognize Dallas,” Chris explains. “I’d known every street, every highway, once, and suddenly I had to call people to help me get home. I wanted to never feel that way again, never allow anyone to put me in that position again.” 

As soon as he had his feet, however, Chris also had a plan. He couldn’t forget the people he’d met in prison, some of whom he truly believed might be innocent as well. 

“[In prison] I just kept seeing people that looked like me saying the same thing: ‘I’m in here for something I didn’t even do.’ Eventually I got together with some broad-minded people and we started to have an open discussion about life, society, and what we could do to help. [While we were in there,] I told them, ‘Look, there are a lot of us that keep saying we’re here for something we didn’t do. Let’s talk about it, let’s come up with a plan, let’s come up with a strategy.’ And they were like, ‘Hey, it sounds good, but somebody’s got to get out first.’ And then I was the first out of that group to get out, to get exonerated,” Chris explains. “I know the majority of the exonerees here [in Dallas]. I know them from living in a cell, in the same wing with them,” he says. “How could I leave them behind?”

In 2014, The Los Angeles Times reported that the state of Texas had paid at least $65 million to 96 exonerees. More than a third of them were from Dallas County. It was with them in mind that he and two other exonerees, Steven Phillips and Johnnie Lindsey, who passed away last year, founded the House of Renewed Hope, an amateur detective agency, by wrongly convicted individuals for wrongly convicted individuals. 

Neighbors are used to seeing camera crews around Chris’s house. Reporters from as near as The Dallas Morning News and as far as The New York Times and Rolling Stone have come to meet him. A Stanford professor even spent five years following him to film the 2017 documentary True Convictions.. The documentary tells the stories of two wrongfully imprisoned men, and the struggle to overturn their convictions. After the film, even more people reached out, wanting to negotiate TV series and maybe even major motion pictures. 

“Everyone wants a piece of the story,” he says. “That’s just fine, as long as I get to talk about my work.” 

Because of the wide news coverage, inmates from around the country write in by the thousands. Chris suspects that some aren’t legitimate. Of the many that have merit, House of Renewed Hope can only help in cases where there might be more evidence that was never recovered, new people to interview, new leads that were never followed. It’s heartbreaking, but sometimes cases have to be turned away, simply because there’s nothing that can be done. But the men of House of Renewed Hope live for those few letters where the claim is sound, where the prosecution’s evidence was shaky, when they can step in and crack a bad case wide open.  They also advocate for legislative changes regarding the criminal justice system. Chris and his team are boots on the ground, reinvestigating claims of innocence in the hopes of discovering new evidence that can be brought to light. He’s spent hours tracking down elusive witnesses, even taped confessions, and gone past where the arm of the law can reach.

For example, True Convictions covered the case of Isiah Hill, who spent 41 long years in prison before House of Renewed Hope was able to get him out. Chris is working on a couple of cases that look good, and hopes that by the end of the year, two more will be out, one after 17 years incarcerated, and another after 28. 

House of Renewed Hope is Chris’s way of doing for others what was finally done for him, 13 years late. 

After he was freed, Chris made two significant purchases with his compensation: a car, and the bright silver ring he wears every day, his symbol of victory. Whenever one of their cases is successful, and another wrongfully convicted person walks out of prison, Chris and the others are there to meet them. They give each of their clients a matching ring to slide onto their finger, a sign of a new start, and a welcome, back into the land of the free.

houseofrenewedhope.org

Alexandra Cronin
Alexandra Cronin has been the senior editor at Local Profile since 2016. She loves great coffee, good food and average wine.

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