An interview with Debbie Jones, an advocate and sexual assault survivor who lives in Richardson, Texas.
Can you share a brief summary of your story?
Jones: I was brutally raped and beaten in my home when I was 19 (May 7, 1985), and the police found a suspect, Thomas McGowan, who matched the description of the rapist. I identified him from a lineup, and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two life sentences-one for burglary of a habitation with a deadly weapon and the other for first-degree sexual assault with a deadly weapon. He went to prison. I was extremely relieved. I never questioned that they had the right man, especially because he had threatened to kill me-right in front of Detective Mike Corley, the investigator on my case, when we were all in the courtroom.
Through the years, I always kept track of Thomas McGowan through the VINE system. In 2008, I received a letter that he was in Dallas on a writ to get his DNA tested. I was shocked and confused. An officer called to reassure me that offenders often ask for these tests, and not to worry. They collected DNA from me and from my ex-husband in Florida so they could run the tests.
A few weeks later, though, some officers showed up at my office, and my mother was with them. I knew it could not be good news. They told me the DNA analysis showed that the rapist was not Thomas McGowan. I was confused, angry, and terrified?how could this happen? Detective Corley said he was just as confused as I was, but the tests showed for sure that Thomas was not the rapist.
What was the impact of this news on you?
Jones: I was suffocating with fear because I had two days until he was going to be released. One of my sons moved back home with me, and my friends helped me secure the doors and windows on my house. I was terrified that Thomas would find me and make good on his threat to kill me-especially now, having gone to prison, wrongly convicted. Having all this happen was like a violation all over again. Nobody asked my permission. Nobody warned me this was going to happen. I went back into a terrible depression, and then into counseling. If it hadn't been for my family and friends, I don't know how I could have gotten through that period of time. Going through this process was terribly isolating, and every day seemed like a struggle just to survive. Going through the whole ordeal again, reliving the entire tragic event was like being revictimized; yet this time, you also have the guilt to deal with that you helped put a man in prison who was not guilty.
Did your reaction to the exoneration change over time?
Jones: Yes, and how it happened surprised me. Detective Mike Corley and I were asked to speak about the exoneration at an International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Denver in the fall of 2009. Detective Corley called to tell me that the IACP wanted Thomas McGowan to participate, too. I wasn't sure how I felt about this, as that meant I would have to meet Thomas face to face, and I didn't know if I was ready for that. But Mike had already met and talked with him, and there was such peace in Mike's voice when he talked about their conversation. I needed that peace, too, so I agreed to meet with Thomas.
Detective Corley and I met with Thomas. He came in with his girlfriend, and it was surreal-he looked as scared as I was. He spoke first. He said it was good to meet his accuser face to face again. He assured me he just wanted to go on and make something good happen out of a bad situation.
Once I started talking, I shocked myself. The first thing I said was, "Thomas, I have to tell you, I'm really sorry." That was the first time I said that. I'd had to deal with so much fear, so much hate, so much resentment and so many horrible feelings. I was relieved that I could feel sorry for him-for what happened. I said, "I have to know that you're not going to hurt me or my family because the last time I saw you, you threatened to kill me." The look on his face-I never would have believed it-was just shock. He didn't remember! I could see from his demeanor and what he said that he wasn't going to hurt me. I needed that. When we got up to leave, I shocked myself again. I went up to Thomas and gave him a hug. I never thought in my wildest dreams that would ever happen. We have gone on to talk a couple of times, all of us together since then, and I text or e-mail him now and then to let him know I'm thinking of him.
Was the case ever solved?
Jones: Yes. Soon after the exoneration, the police in Richardson, Texas, (where the crime took place) put the DNA from the crime scene into the CODIS system. Within a few weeks, they got a hit and found that the rapist was Kenneth Bell, who was then in prison for bank robbery and rape. He had been sentenced to 30 years for sexually assaulting a woman a year after he had raped me, but he had been released on parole after about 20 years. As soon as he was released, he robbed a bank in Richardson. He was then arrested and convicted of that crime and also required to serve the rest of his sentence for the sexual assault, which he was doing at the time of the exoneration. When he completes that sentence in 2011, he will be sent to a federal prison to finish the bank robbery sentence.; But he will not be prosecuted for raping me. I was devastated to find out that the statute of limitations at the time of the crime was five years. So even though the statute of limitations in Texas has been changed to ten years (and eliminated when DNA evidence is available), there is no way to prosecute him for raping me. Kenneth Bell will be released from prison in 2017.
As you look back over all these phases of the case, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the law enforcement and victim services response to you?
Jones: I feel very lucky and blessed about the law enforcement response-both after the crime and after the exoneration. Back in 1985, many law enforcement agencies didn't know much about how to work with rape victims. But the Richardson, Texas, police were great. They took me seriously, followed through on everything, and made sure they helped me in any way they could. Detective Corley went to court with me, and he actually sat right beside me the day Thomas McGowan threatened me.
After the exoneration, the Richardson Police Department and Detective Corley recognized that the news would retraumatize me. From the very beginning, they have kept me in the forefront of their concerns and made me feel that no one was more important than I am. If I had a question, they made sure I got answers fast. And they have subsequently changed their lineup procedures to prevent such a mistake happening again. Mine is the only case in Richardson where that has ever happened, but they are working hard to make sure it does not happen again.
I wasn't so lucky with victim services. Back in 1985, I was pretty much on my own, and there were no resources the police could point me to. The only place I could go for help was a rape crisis center, and unfortunately I did not receive the help that I needed from that agency. I went once and never went back. They involved family members in ways that were harmful to me, and they never followed up to see if I was OK and why I didn't come back.
In contrast, in 2008, the year of the exoneration, there was a world of difference in the victim services response, and I am amazed by how much help I have had. The victim witness coordinator in the Dallas County Prosecutor's Office, Chris Jenkins, recognized I needed to be treated as a new victim. She immediately suggested to me that I might need counseling and arranged for me to get it. She is constantly available to me, and she has helped me through the process and through the worst times. So much information is available today, and victims don't have to find their way by themselves now. Through the Internet, there are resources such as the National Center for Victims of Crime Web site and publications and information from other organizations to help victims find their way through what will often be the most difficult, confusing, and traumatizing experience of their lives.
What can authorities and victim service professionals do better for victims like you?
Jones: As I've talked to other victims, I've learned that not all police departments put their victims first. For example, I have been in a small support group with two other victims in exoneration situations whose cases have not been solved. One woman didn't know there had been a CODIS hit on her case because the police (in another jurisdiction) hadn't told her about it, probably because they were worried about their own image and reputation. If that's the case, they put their interests ahead of hers. The Richardson Police Department, on the other hand, always kept my interest and well-being first, and that's the way it should be.
The big issue for me, though, is not law enforcement but the law that will let Kenneth Bell out of prison in 2017. He brutally raped me, and when they got him to confess, he remembered every detail of that awful crime 25 years ago. But the law says he can't be prosecuted and serve time for that crime. That is so wrong, not only for me but for other women. What is the state of Texas going to say to the next victim he rapes after he gets out in 2017-"Sorry, but that's the law?" No, laws are made by men and women, and that law can be changed by men and women to be sure rapists identified through DNA will not roam the streets of this country to prey on another victim.
It's important that states view victims in exoneration cases as new victims. The state of New Hampshire recently passed precedent-setting legislation to reactivate victim services and victim compensation when an exoneration takes place.
Also, states need to do more for victims overall. I had so many problems because of this crime, not only at the time of the crime but then again when the exoneration took place. Did the state pay for my antidepressants or help me pay for my relocation to Virginia to get away from the rapist? No. I wasn't even advised that there was a victim compensation fund. There is some compensation available currently, but not enough, and the state should do more to help victims cope with what happens after an exoneration.
How did you become an advocate?
Jones: I became an advocate because I didn't want to let this experience beat me. Although I am a very strong person, I realize that some women may not have my strength -and what if they can't deal with the stress and trauma of the experience? They need to know that someone is there for them-to hold their hand, to listen, to help them find services that will help them find their own way. I also think the statute of limitations for sex crimes should be removed. It's so important to be able to hold people like Kenneth Bell accountable for his crime. If I can make a difference, I want to make something positive out of a horrible situation.
What advice (particularly regarding forensic DNA) would you have for other advocates who would like to help other victims?
Jones: DNA has created a new frontier, and advocates need to stay on top of it and make sure victims have whatever information is available. For example, until recently, Dallas County didn't have brochures available on DNA for victims--like those you have at the National Center for Victims of Crime. Dallas County offers information and informed, trained staff to help victims both in exoneration situations and when an offender requests a DNA test that ultimately confirms guilt. DNA testing has created a new frontier, and there is no handbook on how to deal with it. So victims need experienced advocates to help them.
Advocates need to know that every exoneration case and every victim is unique. Advocates need to stay involved and be determined to help victims get what they need to cope. Some victims, like me, need to know everything. It's the fear of the unknown that scares me most. Other victims need to learn new information gradually because of the intense pain it can cause. The important thing to remember is: that is the victim's choice, and we have to respect that choice.
Do you have any thoughts to share with survivors who are going through the kind of post-conviction exoneration experience you have had?
Jones: Whatever you need, respect it and ask for help because it is there. Don't suffer on your own-because you don't have to, and there is so much help available. There have been many times that I didn't really need "help" or any type of "service"-I just needed someone to listen. I didn't want my problem solved; I just wanted to be heard. We all, as advocates, need to remember sometimes to be still and just listen. Because sometimes it's not what you can do, it's that you can just be there for them, hold their hand, listen, and let them work through the pain in their own unique way.
I want to be there for other victims (and I'd really prefer to call myself a survivor) to show them that we've walked through the fire and come out the other side. There were many times that the "brick wall" of grief seemed insurmountable to me and I thought I'd never get to the other side. Yet somehow, eventually, you do, but you can't get to forgiveness and peace if you can't get through the pain.