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.

As with the screwdriver and truck, however, the defense failed to fully capitalize on the many flaws in the state's case. Testimony established that the weather had been exceptionally wet, for example, but no one thought to ask how Criner could have driven 500 yards down the logging road to the spot where Ogg's body was found without leaving the distinctive tire tracks of his dual-axle pickup. A photograph taken at the scene clearly shows a set of standard vehicle tracks in the dirt, though (again) no police report makes note of this significant fact, and Hocker never raised the issue. "As a lawyer, looking back in hindsight, I see a lot of things that should have been done," Cooper says.

Even without any knowledge of the disturbing information that has since emerged, the Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont ruled that the evidence to convict Criner was insufficient to sustain the verdict. Sixteen months after the trial, Roy Criner was set free.

But his luck didn't hold. In December 1992, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the appellate ruling, stating in essence that the Beaumont Court had substituted its judgment for the jury's. For the third time, prison walls surrounded him. Under current state policy, he'll probably not be up for release until a couple of decades into the next century.

His eyes darting nervously about, barely able to meet the gaze of his visitors, Roy Criner looks less like a cold-blooded killer than a hunted animal. Not surprising, since he believes the state wants to kill him. After his successful appeal was overturned, Criner went briefly on the lam to avoid what he says was an effort to do him in. "I'm lucky to be alive," he says.

Criner can be forgiven a certain amount of paranoia. When the warrant was issued for his arrest, law-enforcement officials had him placed immediately on the state's Ten Most Wanted list, even though he hadn't even been notified by his lawyer of his new status. When police later approached Criner at a friend's house in Livingston where he'd holed up to escape the heat, he fled into the woods. Calling Criner a "self-proclaimed survivalist," police then painted a picture for the media of a dangerous fugitive armed to the teeth with crossbows and battle axes.

His friends and relatives say it was all a crock. "He never lived in the woods for a day in his life," says Jackie Criner, his mother. "That's just some more bullshit."

When he emerged from hiding -- the next day -- he called another friend, who picked him up and brought him to Houston. At the time, recalls his mother, "Roy didn't have a water gun [on him], much less a bow or an ax. The child didn't have nothin' except maybe a can of Skoal with him."

It wasn't the first time the authorities had stretched the truth to inflate Criner's menace. When he was first arrested for the murder of Deanna Ogg in 1986, police described Criner as an acquaintance of the victim, though the two had never met and had no friends in common. In order to more easily obtain a search warrant, Sherman Sauls told a judge that Criner was in custody in the Montgomery County jail, a lie he later admitted on the witness stand.

And to explain the evolving statements of Jeff Pitts, prosecutor David Walker portrayed Criner during the trial as a predator who would extract revenge if given the chance. "Roy Criner has intimidated and threatened every witness that has testified, not only with his presence today, but four years ago," he told the judge. "They are all scared to death of him. Specifically, Jeffrey Pitts."

Nonsense, says Pitts. Not only did Criner never threaten him, but he'd hire him back if he ever gets out of prison. "Roy was one of the best damn hands you could have," he says.

Pitts has another explanation for his conflicting statements: During a series of interviews, Sauls, Walker and other investigators were constantly attempting to lead him with information that incriminated Criner; if he said something they didn't like, they'd threaten him with perjury. "I don't have respect for none of the 'laws,' " he says, referring to the police.

Walker dismisses Pitts's comments as an effort to avoid responsibility for helping convict his former employee, and he says his own perception of Criner remains unchanged. "He is a beast," Walker says.

As evidence, Walker cites Criner's clashes with cops and the stories of his brute physical strength, such as the time he put all the other jail inmates to shame with his weightlifting prowess. Plus, he notes, Criner had a reputation for getting into fistfights. "It was almost as if it was recreation for him," Walker says.

But those who know Criner paint a more complex picture, one of a lonely, brooding soul with strong, if narrow, moral convictions. He did have a short fuse, they say, but it only lit under certain circumstances. "I seen him get pissed off, but not at anyone that didn't deserve it," says Tonya Pitts. And while he may have been prone to take a swing at a man if goaded or pushed, she and others say he was unfailingly deferential and polite to women. "He would never even cuss in front of me," Pitts says.

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