ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Not so long ago, Patrick Waller was shackled and dressed in a Texas prison uniform.
Now he spends his days in a University of Texas at Arlington classroom, taking notes and adding to the discussion, about six months after being freed from prison for crimes he didn't commit.
And recently, the 39-year-old Dallas man — who is studying criminal justice with the long-term goal of becoming a criminal defense lawyer — was honored at a UT-Arlington basketball game where he gave a pep talk to the team.
"Everything is great for now. I've been like a kid in a candy store," Waller said in an interview before the game. "Everything's been the same since I've been released — I haven't had a bad day yet."
Waller is among the 19 Dallas County inmates exonerated by DNA evidence. He spent 16 years behind bars before getting out in July with the help of the Innocence Project of Texas.
In his locker-room pep talk, Waller told the players to remember that.
"I just fought the hardest fight of my entire life, and this is what I would like to see out of all of you guys tonight," he said. "I would really like you guys to win so I can brag to my grandchildren."
In 1992, Waller was meeting all the terms of his parole for possession of cocaine when he was told to meet with his parole officer at his home. He was being set up for an arrest. Victims of a recent kidnapping in which a woman was raped picked Waller out of a collection of mug shots and said he was one of the two assailants.
Waller professed his innocence every step of the way. Still, a Dallas jury convicted him of aggravated robbery for supposedly stealing a victim's car during the kidnapping.
When the jury heard details of the sexual assault during the trial, they gave him a life sentence. Prosecutors put pressure on him to plead guilty to additional charges of aggravated kidnapping. Frightened of getting additional life terms, putting off for many years any chance of getting parole, Waller eventually pleaded guilty.
The cell in which Waller spent his first three years was so small that he could raise his arms and touch both walls.
Fistfights were frequent, even necessary, to earn respect from other inmates, he said. The food was horrible.
Small comforts came in chances to exercise and receive visits from a family that never gave up on him. He also helped pass the time by earning two associates degrees — one in applied science and another in liberal arts.
Waller said he also pored over books in the prison law library looking for anything that might help his case. He learned of DNA testing and requested a test. But in 2001 his request was denied.
Six years later, Mike Ware, chief of the Dallas County district attorney office's conviction integrity unit, granted his request. His unit was reviewing cases where it was thought that requests for DNA tests should have been granted.
Subsequent tests showed that Waller's DNA did not match the samples kept in the rape kit from 1992, but they did match the DNA of a convicted felon.
Ware said the inmate who committed the crime eventually confessed, but the statute of limitations protected him from prosecution. Still, it laid the groundwork for Waller's eventual exoneration and his release in July.
Waller immediately went for a steak dinner. He drove a car, drank a beer, smoked a cigarette, went fishing.
There was some adjusting to life on the outside; keeping his guard up, presenting a tough facade was no longer necessary.
John Stickels, director of the Innocence Project at UT-Arlington, said he first saw Waller in a courthouse holding unit. Waller was in high spirits, and he said he wanted to go to college when he got out.
"I mentioned to him if you want to go to school I can help you get into UT-Arlington," he said.
After studying law books in prison for so many years, Waller said, his course work seems easy.
Many in the crowd at the game stood up and cheered when Waller was introduced as guest coach.
And he'll get to brag to his grandchildren that the Mavs won, 78-59.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.