FORT WORTH — David Wiggins was just 24 years old when a traumatized teen rape victim misidentified him nearly a quarter century ago.
Now 48, Wiggins is just hours from freedom.
"He is excited. He's very overwhelmed," said Nina Morrison, an attorney for the Innocence Project in New York City. "He's a little apprehensive about all the changes that have happened in the world."
Morrison says Wiggins first requested DNA tests before he was convicted in 1989.
"He filed a handwritten motion from the jail cell while he was awaiting trial for this new thing called DNA testing he'd heard about," Morrison said. "The court said it can't be done at this time."
Twenty-three years ago, the technology was still new and relatively crude by today's standards. The Innocence Project paid for multiple inconclusive DNA tests, until one this month positively ruled Wiggins out.
The Innocence Project praised Tarrant County for preserving the evidence, even though it wasn’t required to by law at the time.
District Clerk Tom Wilder said he has some evidence dating back to 1962. Amid the court exhibits stacked in an undisclosed basement is a cardboard box marked "David Wiggins."
Clothing inside the box provided the evidence that cleared him. Testing evidence for DNA can sometimes damage the evidence itself. Earlier tests might have exonerated Wiggins sooner, or they might have damaged his last, best hope.
"That's true," said Morrison. "But evidence also degrades over time. And there were some items of evidence that could have been tested — like hairs collected from the crime — that, when we went back to look for them, were gone."
Morrison says evidence is lost or destroyed in about one-third of the cases she gets.
In this case, though, preserved DNA trumped the young victim's eyewitness testimony. Morrison says DNA has cleared wrongfully convicted people who were identified by multiple eyewitnesses.
Morrison said Wiggins isn't thinking only of himself as he prepares to enter the free world.
"Mr. Wiggins wanted me to make sure everyone knows that he doesn't bear that woman any ill will whatsoever,” Morrison said. “He understands she was a child at the time."
David Wiggins is scheduled to be freed on bond after a Friday morning court hearing. Nina Morrison said it could take several more days to formally dispose of the case.