Partners in innocence

Student’s work helps free men wrongly convicted of murder

Something kept gnawing at Natalie Ellis. The criminology and criminal justice junior just wasn’t convinced that Claude Simmons and Christopher Scott murdered Alfonso Aguilar in 1997.

UTA Junior Natalie Ellis

Junior Natalie Ellis helped exonerate Christopher Scott, left, and Claude Simmons after 12 years in prison.

“I was the third student to pick up their file,” says Ellis, who volunteers for the UT Arlington Innocence Network. “Everyone told me to forget it because there was no DNA evidence. But there were so many elements in the file that interested me. I had a feeling about the case.”

Simmons and Scott are happy she did.

After spending 12 years in prison for murder, the two men are free thanks to the work of Ellis and others. They were exonerated in October after Dallas County district attorney and Dallas Police Department officials announced the arrests of two other men in the slaying. The case garnered widespread media attention.

“It’s the first double exoneration of capital murder that I know of and the first exclusively for UT Arlington students,” says John Stickels, criminology and criminal justice assistant professor and Innocence Network adviser.

Shortly after their exonerations, Simmons and Scott visited UT Arlington Innocence Network students to show their appreciation.

“There are so many other people in prison right now who are innocent,” Simmons said. “We want to help out this program in any way we can. We feel like that’s the least we can do.”

The program gives UT Arlington students the chance to investigate wrongful convictions. Ellis is thankful for the opportunity to examine such cases as an undergraduate.

“This university, John Stickels and the Innocence Network program offer students a chance to work on real, live cases,” she says. “You can’t get that opportunity anywhere else.”

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