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Michael Phillips had long ago given up trying to clear his name. At 57, he was a registered sex offender, living in a nursing home, wheelchair-bound from severe sickle cell anemia.

Then in May, two police officers delivered news that Phillips says only God could have ordained: Dallas County, Texas, prosecutors had proved through DNA testing that he had spent 12 years in prison for a rape he hadn't committed.

Hundreds of people have been exonerated through DNA testing. But on Friday, Phillips will become the first exonerated by DNA through systematic testing by a prosecutor's office even though he hadn't requested the testing, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

"I'm in awe," Phillips of Dallas told USA TODAY. "At first, I thought I was like, kind of in another time zone or a twilight zone."

As the news sank in, he says, the Holy Spirit confirmed to him that it was all part of his life's plan.

The exoneration comes thanks to the Dallas County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which is testing DNA evidence on decades-old cases even when convicted defendants aren't proclaiming their innocence.

The project examines rape cases when sperm or seminal fluid was found and the DNA samples are from one assailant.

Michael Phillips had long ago given up trying to clear his name. At 57, he was a registered sex offender, living in a nursing home, wheelchair-bound from severe sickle cell anemia.

Then in May, two police officers delivered news that Phillips says only God could have ordained: Dallas County, Texas, prosecutors had proved through DNA testing that he had spent 12 years in prison for a rape he hadn't committed.

Hundreds of people have been exonerated through DNA testing. But on Friday, Phillips will become the first exonerated by DNA through systematic testing by a prosecutor's office even though he hadn't requested the testing, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

"I'm in awe," Phillips of Dallas told USA TODAY. "At first, I thought I was like, kind of in another time zone or a twilight zone."

As the news sank in, he says, the Holy Spirit confirmed to him that it was all part of his life's plan.

The exoneration comes thanks to the Dallas County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which is testing DNA evidence on decades-old cases even when convicted defendants aren't proclaiming their innocence.

The project examines rape cases when sperm or seminal fluid was found and the DNA samples are from one assailant.

Eventually, he went to live with his brother and gave up claiming he was innocent.

"As far as my case was concerned, I just said it was over with," Phillips says. "All I had to do was finish my time and then go about my business."

It's very rare for someone to be exonerated without seeking it, Gross says.

"We should learn that there are people who have been convicted of serious crimes who are not actively seeking exoneration but who are innocent nonetheless," he says. "We don't know how many, but there may be many more than we suspect. And if we try, we can find some of them."

Under Texas law, Phillips will be compensated $80,000 for each of his 12 years in prison plus $80,000 a year for the rest of his life, Watkins' office says.

"It feels good now that I know that my father God was behind everything," Phillips says. "Everything he does puts me in awe. It just makes my faith stronger and stronger every day."

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