A Forensic Revolution
Gary Udashen leads the way to help Texas’ wrongfully imprisoned
Published in 2015 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 1, 2015
Updated on February 3, 2016
In 2000, Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Orson Mozee were convicted in the 1999 murder of the Rev. Jesse Borns Jr. in Dallas. Among the most compelling evidence was the testimony of jailhouse informants who claimed to have heard Allen and Mozee confess. The two maintained their innocence.
More than 10 years later, the Innocence Project of Texas and the national Innocence Project in New York took their case. In the old prosecution files, the team discovered letters showing the informants had agreed to testify in exchange for a deal to positively affect their own cases. On the stand, they had sworn the opposite.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite as shocked as I was seeing those letters,” says Gary Udashen, president of the Innocence Project of Texas since 2010 and a criminal defense attorney with Sorrels, Udashen & Anton in Dallas.
“It’s pretty rare to find something sitting in the files, stamped and put away like any other document, that so directly contradicts everything that the prosecutor was telling the judge and jury,” says Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney for the Innocence Project in New York.
Allen and Mozee’s convictions were overturned and they were released in October 2014. Udashen now hopes to exonerate them.
Since 2008, Udashen has volunteered with the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit devoted to the release of wrongfully convicted Texans. The soft-spoken attorney graduated from Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1980. “The Innocence Project wasn’t around and DNA wasn’t around, but this kind of work, this approach to the practice of law, this is why I went to law school,” he says.
He has practiced law for 35 years and estimates that he splits his time almost equally between his paid work and his pro bono cases. “It gets real hectic and it gets real difficult. We have a nine-lawyer firm that does nothing but criminal defense work, so I have other lawyers that I work on cases with,” says Udashen.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the state of Texas who’s done more to represent wrongfully convicted Texans, with less credit, than Gary Udashen,” says Morrison.
In one of his earliest wrongful conviction cases, Udashen represented Patrick Waller, sentenced to life in 1992 for a conviction of aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Waller requested DNA testing after it was approved in 2001 by the Texas Legislature. Udashen used it to get Waller released and exonerated in 2008.
“We’re coming up on 15 years, so most people who were eligible for a DNA test have gotten their DNA test. Going forward, we’re going to be seeing a lot less DNA and a lot more of other kinds of exonerations,” Udashen says. “If you’re going to go in on an arson case, for instance, you have to educate the people you’re dealing with about new science.”
In 2014 he represented Sonia Cacy, convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle Bill Richardson by dousing him in gasoline and setting him and their house on fire. Her conviction pivoted on samples of Richardson’s clothing tested by a state lab and a private lab. The state technician testified that gasoline was present on its sample; a private technician concluded just the opposite with a different clothing sample.
The district attorney convinced the jury the two samples were the same, and that the Dallas sample tested negative because the earlier test had stripped away the gasoline. Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but the Texas Board of Pardons was moved by evidence of her innocence, including an arson expert’s statement that the state’s evidence relied on junk science. Cacy was paroled in 1998 but is yet to be exonerated, though Udashen and his team are working on it. They consulted with experts who reviewed the original tests and determined that gasoline was not present on the clothing samples. Cacy hopes Udashen’s work will lead to a favorable decision from Judge Bert Richardson, which was pending at press time. “Gary’s very controlled. He knows exactly what to ask and what to say. The district attorney was jumping up and down, but Gary was very calm,” she says.
Udashen was also instrumental in getting the “junk science” law passed. It lets a defendant ask for a new trial in convictions based on science that has since proved flawed, incorrect or outdated. “I feel like we’re moving the system forward, because a lot of this is just raising consciousness and awareness of the problems,” Udashen says. His policy work and position as president of the Innocence Project of Texas’ board of directors have raised his public profile, but he hasn’t lost sight of the reason he pursues pro bono cases.
“The highest level of satisfaction is when you successfully get someone out of prison,” he says. “Somebody that’s spent all of those years in prison for something that they’re innocent of. That’s the highest level of satisfaction: seeing them walk out the door.”