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Exonerated Texas inmate refused deals that required him to admit crimes

Cornelius Dupree Jr. (center), celebrating with lawyers yesterday, served 30 years before DNA evidence proved him innocent. Cornelius Dupree Jr. (center), celebrating with lawyers yesterday, served 30 years before DNA evidence proved him innocent. (Mike Fuentes/Associated Press)
Associated Press / January 5, 2011

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DALLAS — A Texas man declared innocent yesterday after 30 years in prison had at least two chances to make parole and be set free — if only he would admit he was a sex offender.

But Cornelius Dupree Jr. refused to do so, doggedly maintaining his innocence in a 1979 rape and robbery, in the process serving more time for a crime he didn’t commit than any other Texas inmate exonerated by DNA evidence.

“Whatever your truth is, you have to stick with it,’’ Dupree, 51, said yesterday, minutes after a Dallas judge overturned his conviction.

Nationally, only two others exonerated by DNA evidence spent more time in prison, according to the Innocence Project, a New York legal center that specializes in wrongful conviction cases and represented Dupree. James Bain was wrongly imprisoned for 35 years in Florida, and Lawrence McKinney spent more than 31 years in a Tennessee prison.

Dupree was sentenced to 75 years in prison in 1980 in the rape and robbery of a 26-year-old Dallas woman a year earlier. He was released in July on mandatory supervision and lived under house arrest until October. About a week after his release, DNA test results came back proving his innocence in the sexual assault.

A day after his release, Dupree married his fiancée, Selma. The couple met two decades ago while he was in prison.

His exoneration hearing was delayed until yesterday while authorities retested the DNA and made sure it was a match to the victim. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins supported Dupree’s innocence claim.

Looking fit and trim in a dark suit, Dupree stood through most of the short hearing, until state district Judge Don Adams told him, “You’re free to go.’’ His lawyer Barry Schreck, codirector of the Innocence Project, called it “a glorious day.’’

“It’s a joy to be free again,’’ Dupree said.

This latest wait was nothing for Dupree, who was up for parole as recently as 2004. He was set to be released and thought he was going home, until he learned he first would have to attend a sex-offender treatment program.

Those in the program had to go through what is known as the “four R’s.’’ They are recognition, remorse, restitution, and resolution, said Jim Shoemaker, who served two years with Dupree in the Boyd Unit south of Dallas.

“He couldn’t get past the first part,’’ said Shoemaker, who drove up from Houston to attend Dupree’s hearing.

Shoemaker said he spent years talking to Dupree in the prison recreation yard, and always believed in his innocence.

“I got a lot of flak from the guys on the block,’’ Shoemaker said. “But I always believed him. He has a quiet, peaceful demeanor.’’

Under Texas compensation laws for the wrongly imprisoned, Dupree is eligible for $80,000 for each year he was behind bars, plus a lifetime annuity. He could receive $2.4 million in a lump sum that is not subject to federal income tax. The compensation law was passed in 2009 by the Texas Legislature.

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