Nothing but the Truth

Nothing but the Truth

Though it kept him behind bars, he wouldn't admit guilt for a crime he didn't commit.

Cornelius Dupree

My name is Cornelius Dupree , and I am a sex offender. I paced the narrow aisle between the bunks in my cell, going over the words in my mind, trying to force them to my lips.

Those were the words I would have to say in front of the other men in the counseling program if I wanted to get out of prison. The words that would set me free.

Twenty-four years. That’s how long I’d been an inmate at the Coffield Unit, a maximum-security state prison in East Texas. I’d been convicted of robbing a couple at gunpoint when I was 19. I was serving a 75-year sentence.

Three times before, I’d come up for parole. Each time I had been turned down. I’d spent more of my life inside, behind bars, than I had outside, in the real world.

Now, at last, the state parole board was offering me a chance at freedom. But first I had to attend a sex-offender program and admit that I had raped the female victim.

I’d been charged with rape and robbery originally, and even though the rape charge had been dismissed, it was still in my file. If I admitted my guilt and expressed remorse, I would be released.

My fiancée, Selma, urged me to do it. So did my brother and sisters. I wanted to get out. I was tired of prison.

I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was middle-aged. I wanted to marry Selma. Get a decent job. Eat a home-cooked meal. Visit my mom’s grave. Meet my nieces and nephews. Do something good with what was left of my life.

There was one thing standing in my way. One huge thing: the truth. I hadn’t raped or robbed anyone. I was innocent.

I don’t mean that I was a squeaky-clean kid who spent all his time at church. I did go to church–I was baptized at age eight–but I can’t say I was mature in my faith or in my behavior.

In my teens I did the dumb things teenage guys in my Dallas neighborhood did back then–joyriding, drinking, smoking a little marijuana. Still, I had never been in really serious trouble.

That was why I wasn’t worried the night the cops picked me up, November 30, 1979. I was walking with Anthony Massingill, a guy I knew from the apartment complex where our families lived.

I hadn’t been planning to go out, but when he knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to go to a house party a few blocks away, I thought, Why not? I had put in a long day at work–I was a mechanic for a trailer company–and I was ready to have a little fun.

Halfway there we passed a couple of parked police cars. Officers jumped out and stopped and frisked us. I didn’t have anything on me, but they found a bag of marijuana and a gun on Massingill. I had no idea he was carrying either.

The cops put us in their car and took us downtown to the county jail for booking. I was upset but not worried. I hadn’t done anything wrong, after all. I thought it wouldn’t take long for the police to figure that out and let me go.

Massingill and I were brought to the courthouse next door to be arraigned. That was the first time I heard the charges against us. Aggravated rape and aggravated robbery. I almost jumped up and shouted, “What?!” I was shocked.

Marijuana possession and carrying a concealed weapon, I could’ve understood, considering what Massingill had on him. But rape and robbery...where did that come from?

The prosecutor told the judge that one week earlier, in the vicinity of where we’d been picked up, two men matching our description had carjacked a couple at gunpoint, robbing them and raping the woman. She had picked our pictures out of a photo lineup.

I was taken back to the county jail and put in a cell with seven other guys awaiting trial. I still wasn’t all that concerned. I’d watched Perry Mason, and I believed in the justice system. I believed that you were innocent until proven guilty. I believed that the truth would come out in court.

My mom, though, was worried. I could see it in her eyes, even though she tried to be strong. She talked about scraping together money to hire a good attorney for me.

“I don’t want you putting up your life savings for that,” I said. My parents weren’t well off. “They’re going to find out I’m the wrong guy and let me go.”

I spent months in the county lockup before my case finally went to trial. I was assigned an overworked public defender, who talked to me for maybe 20 minutes total. DNA testing wasn’t available back then, in 1980. No conclusions could be drawn from the physical evidence collected from the victim.

There was no other real evidence. The prosecution’s case was based on eyewitness identification, and that was hardly rock solid. I’d never seen either victim until they took the stand, but both testified that I’d robbed them.

The man, however, hadn’t been able to pick out my picture in the earlier photo lineup. The woman mistakenly identified a photo of Massingill as me even though I was right there in the courtroom for her to compare my face to the picture.

I thought I had a good chance of being acquitted. The jury came back after barely an hour. The foreman stood and read the verdict: “Guilty.”

The judge followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced me to 75 years. I heard my mom gasp. I went numb. Everything sounded tinny and far away, like I was in the middle of a strange dream that had no connection to reality.

Reality set in awful quick in prison. At night I lay in my cell on my hard bunk, my mind running. Seventy-five years. Under Texas law, I had to serve at least a third of my sentence before I could be paroled.

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