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DNA evidence expected to clear Texas man of 1989 rape conviction

By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram –

FORT WORTH, Texas — Nina Wagnor had been visiting her son in the Tarrant County (Texas) Jail in 1989 when he asked if she would talk to a fellow inmate.

“He said, ‘Mama, maybe some of your professors could help you at college and you could look into my friend’s case because he’s really being ramrodded,’ ” Wagnor recalled.

David Lee Wiggins, 24 and recently sentenced to life in prison for raping a 14-year-old girl at knifepoint, came to the window and shared his story with Wagnor, swearing he was innocent. Wagnor, then attending school to become a legal assistant, told him she’d look into it.

But accessing the information proved difficult.

“Since I wasn’t married to him, I couldn’t find out a whole lot,” Wagnor said. “He asked me if I would marry him and I said, ‘I will.’ ”

On Dec. 8, 1989, with Wiggins in leg shackles and Wagnor wearing a red and white plaid dress, they were married before a justice of the peace.

Wagnor took Wiggins’ name. Through those years, she worked to get others to see that her husband was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, helping him file appeals and serving as his legal assistant in the outside world. Though he was 12 years younger, Nina Wiggins said she eventually fell in love with him and only divorced him in 2007 because she had fallen in bad health and needed to be single in order to collect Social Security benefits from her deceased ex-husband.

“I really believed him,” said Nina Wiggins. “I never had no doubt. I thought how could anybody see all this stuff and not know that he’s innocent, that he didn’t do this. How could anyone not know?”

Friday morning, state District Judge Louis Sturns is expected to vacate Wiggins’ conviction and release the man based on recent DNA tests, which were requested by the Innocence Project.

Though they have not communicated since the divorce, Nina Wiggins said she was thrilled to read the news this week that Wiggins had been exonerated.

“I’ve waited for so long for this, to know that I was right all this time,” said Nina Wiggins, now 60. “I was right.”

David Wiggins’ childhood had been a rough one.

In October 1972, when he was just 8, his mother shot and killed herself just days after her divorce from Wiggins’ father had become final.

He went to live with his father who, three years later, drowned in a lake in Louisiana after his fishing boat overturned during a storm.

Wiggins’ paternal grandparents then took the boy in. As a young teen, he would learn that his father had actually adopted him as a young child after marrying Wiggins’ mother.

“He has not had what I would call a really good upbringing,” said Candy Berg, who considers herself among Wiggins’ siblings although the two are not actually blood relatives.

Berg said her brother began getting into trouble in his early to mid-teens.

“I really think he was self-medicating to deal with stuff,” Berg said. “We all deal with things differently. I joined karate and I beat the snot out of punching bags and read books. … I don’t blame him for what he went through because I think he really did have a difficult life. We all did.”

By the time David Wiggins was charged in the 14-year-old girl’s rape, he had already built up a string of convictions for possession of a controlled substance, theft and burglary of a habitation for which he’d served time in prison, Tarrant County records show.

He had been paroled from prison just two weeks prior to the attack on the girl on June 21, 1988.

The girl, home alone on summer break, had just let her dogs out when a man knocked her to the ground and covered her face with a towel.

She saw glimpses of her attacker’s face three times while struggling to move the towel so she could breathe. He ordered her to be quiet, running a knife up her stomach, and then sexually assaulted her. He threatened he’d return if she told anyone.

Fort Worth police were called and quickly learned that a white or silver Camaro or Firebird had been seen in the general vicinity of the victim’s house.

A couple days after the rape, investigators showed the girl a photo line-up of potential suspects.

She pointed to Wiggins’ photograph, telling investigators he “looked familiar,” according to court documents.

Wiggins’ attorney, Nina Morrison with the Innocence Project in New York, said Wiggins had been included in the photo spread because of his past convictions for burglary and because he was around the same age, race and description of the rape suspect.

On June 24, Wiggins was a passenger in stolen gray Camaro stopped by Fort Worth police on suspicion of gasoline theft.

He was arrested in connection with the gas and auto theft and, on June 25 was placed into a live line-up in which the teen identified him as her attacker.

Though two fingerprints found by police in the victim’s house did not match Wiggins, he was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child. Berg, now living in Washington, never believed her brother was capable of raping a child.

“He has had problems in the past but that isn’t the kind of thing he would have done,” Berg said. “He’s amazingly honest about what he has done, even when I was a cop. He would have told me about it. We’re a pretty close family.”

Nina Wiggins agreed.

“He was a little criminal, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But he never did nothing like that. It was penny-ante stuff.”

While a rape exam of the victim identified some semen in the case, the police crime lab concluded that there wasn’t a sufficient quantity for serological testing. From his jail cell, Wiggins handwrote motions for DNA to be tested in the case but to no avail.

During his trial in August 1989, Wiggins’ defense attorney, Tom Cave, emphasized the lack of physical evidence tying Wiggins to the crime and suggested that the girl may have been mistaken in her identification. Wiggins even took the stand to deny that he raped the girl.

But in the end, jurors said the girl’s identification of Wiggins outweighed the lack of physical evidence.

“We couldn’t possibly have reached our decision without your testimony,” one juror told the girl after the trial, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article about the trial. “I don’t fault the police, but what they gave us wasn’t enough. I admire your courage in testifying. As badly as we wanted to, we couldn’t have convicted him without your saying you saw his face.”

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