Hard Time

The evidence points away from Roy Criner's guilt in a savage crime. But the state still has what counts most -- a conviction.

At that point in Criner's narrative, Ringo said, he backed out of earshot. The next thing he heard Criner say was "I'm gonna kill you." Criner then said he drove the woman to Channelview and made her get out of the truck. End of conversation.

Terry Hooker recounted his version of events to Sauls: Criner told a story of picking up a drunk hitchhiker late Friday night on FM 1485 in New Caney. He drove behind a school, pulled out a screwdriver and threatened to kill her if she resisted. Then he took her in the pickup to land owned by Jeff Pitts, who was Criner's boss and operator of the logging outfit. Criner allegedly told Hooker that he forced her to have oral sex there. Afterward, he drove her to Humble and kicked her out.

Sauls didn't seem especially concerned that the two statements differed in the details. After taking Hooker's statement, he ordered detectives to impound the truck, which belonged to Pitts. A screwdriver was found stuck in the truck's air-conditioning vent. Pitts later told deputies that Criner had related a similar story to him about having sex with a hitchhiker he'd threatened with a screwdriver.

An autopsy by the medical examiner's office determined that Ogg's death was caused by a fractured skull from a blunt instrument and 11 stab wounds to the neck -- wounds that might have been made by a screwdriver.

On October 24, a capital murder warrant was issued against Criner, as well as a search warrant to obtain samples of his semen, pubic hair, blood, skin and saliva. Two days later, he was arrested and locked in the Montgomery County jail.

As for the Nobles brothers and Randy Deshayes, they were apparently forgotten -- Sauls's police report that begins with their interview says nothing at all about the conversation, as though they had ceased to exist after Ringo showed up. Though Sauls now says that the investigation of their whereabouts the day of the crime would surely be reflected in the record, no police report or other document ever mentions them again, nor is it clear if they ever came up with an alibi.

No matter. The state had its man.

It took four years to bring Roy Criner to trial. When he finally had his day in court, he was no longer a murder defendant. By then, the charge had been downgraded to aggravated sexual assault -- since Criner had never told anyone he'd killed his alleged hitchhiker, prosecutors couldn't find even a remote link to Ogg's murder.

Even the sexual assault allegations were shaky, which accounts for the lengthy delay between the arrest and the trial. "We didn't feel the evidence was overwhelming, and we were hoping for additional evidence to come out," says David Walker, the lead prosecutor.

None did, so Walker went with what he had. The day of the crime, Criner was working in a remote logging area with Pitts and Richard Criner, Roy's brother. At some point between three and four in the afternoon, Pitts and Richard Criner took off to get a bulldozer part. When they returned at about 7:30, Roy Criner was still there. According to the state's theory, however, Criner took a dual-axle pickup and left the area shortly after Pitts did.

The prosecution contended he drove the eight or so miles to the Holly Ridge subdivision and spotted Deanna Ogg, who solicited a ride and got in the vehicle. Criner then raped Ogg, stabbed her with the screwdriver, bludgeoned her to death with an unknown object and dumped her body just off a logging trail eight miles from her home. From there, he returned to work just ahead of his brother and Pitts, who arrived shortly thereafter with the bulldozer part.

In essence, the state's case centered on the three stories about the hitchhiker, the screwdriver and a blood sample that, though inconclusive, at least kept Criner in the ballpark as a suspect. Blending those elements with such relevant facts as Criner's great physical strength, which suggested he could have pulled off the crime, Walker tried to drive reasonable doubt from the minds of the jurors. In his closing argument at the end of the two-week trial, the prosecutor made 15 points that generally cast Criner as Ogg's assailant.

Still, he realized his case had a few holes. "I will tell you quite frankly and quite up front," Walker intoned to the jury, "[that] just like a jigsaw puzzle, there are pieces missing."

Criner's court-appointed defense was led by Wesley Hocker, a respected attorney who was winding down his criminal practice to focus on civil litigation. Though not especially anxious to take the case, Hocker did so as a favor to his friend, Judge John Martin, who probably wanted someone of good repute to handle what had started as a high-profile murder case. He was assisted by Robert Morrow, who did much of the legwork for the trial.

Hocker picked at the state's case like a crow feeding on roadkill. When Walker presented an assistant medical examiner who said the wounds on the victim's neck were consistent with screwdriver punctures, he forced an admission that the screwdriver theory came rather late in the investigation and was likely the product of suggestion rather than the M.E.'s conclusion -- in fact, the witness acknowledged, any number of instruments could have caused the wounds. And noting dryly that the screwdriver had somehow been lost in the shuffle, Hocker pointed out that those who claimed to have actually seen the alleged murder weapon couldn't even agree on whether it had a Phillips head or a flat head.

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