Cry for Justice

It doesn't matter that other courts and D.A.'s have cleared wrongly convicted inmates. Roy Criner's case is in Montgomery County, Texas.

Jackie Criner feels good about the recent flood of attention her imprisoned son, Roy, has received. She appreciates the pointed editorial by syndicated columnist Clarence Page about Roy's case, as well as the piece in Texas Lawyer that ripped the state's contentions in the case as "pretzel logic." She cherishes the dozens of letters and phone calls she's gotten from people across the country expressing outrage at Roy's situation. Most of all, she's grateful for the PBS Frontline documentary that brought renewed interest in her son's plight. "I feel lucky they showed the program on Roy," she says.

The national outcry has spawned several new developments. A public relations executive is helping organize a free-Criner campaign to keep the profile high. A Web company has agreed to put up an Internet site about the case. Noted DNA attorney Barry Scheck has arranged for a California lab to analyze crime-scene evidence that was never tested. And Texas Defender Services of Houston will serve as the nonprofit sponsor of a defense fund for Criner.

But none of that can overcome the basic premise that rules Jackie Criner's life: Roy is still in prison for a crime he didn't commit. "I'm very tired, and I'm disgusted," she says, "but I'm not going to stop until justice is done."

On the defensive: Mike McDougal has been twisting the facts in Criner's case.
Phillippe Diederich
On the defensive: Mike McDougal has been twisting the facts in Criner's case.

The story of Roy Criner was first reported in the Houston Press ["Hard Time," by Bob Burtman, September 10, 1998]. At the time, DNA evidence had apparently cleared him of guilt in a brutal Montgomery County rape-murder 12 years earlier. But the state refused to let him go, saying the DNA results didn't prove that Criner hadn't committed the crime. He could have been wearing a condom, said Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller, who rejected calls for a new trial. Or maybe he simply failed to ejaculate. The semen in the victim probably came from consensual sex with someone else, Keller contended. After all, everyone knew she slept around.

Since then, Criner's case has been on hold in the system. Montgomery County District Attorney Mike McDougal has steadfastly opposed a new trial for Criner and has vowed to retry him if the courts should eventually order it. Criner's attorney, Mike Charlton, is about to file another appeal with Keller's court, but after hearing her chilling rationale repeated on Frontline, he holds little hope of relief from that quarter. If the appeal is rejected, Charlton will move the case into federal court, which could take months. "I just feel like we're nowhere with this," says Jacques Verron. His wife, Brenda, is Criner's aunt. "Every time I think we're making some headway, we go back two steps."

Meanwhile, other inmates across the country have been released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them of their alleged crimes. On January 7, A.B. Butler gained his freedom in Texas after serving 16 years for a 1983 rape in Tyler. When DNA testing proved that Butler hadn't committed the crime, Smith County D.A. Jack Skeen supported a motion to let him out and joined Butler's attorney in requesting a full pardon from the governor. Butler had been sentenced to 99 years -- the same as Criner. "It shows you that there's no uniform means for treating a claim of innocence," says Charlton. "You have to depend on the goodwill of the district attorney's office, which is not a fair system of justice."

If the state's unwillingness to accept DNA evidence were the only miscarriage of justice in Criner's case, it would be bad enough. But the case has been marked by police and prosecutorial mistakes -- possibly malfeasance -- from the start.

At 7:15 p.m. on September 27, 1986, two boys riding their four-wheelers found Deanna Ogg's mutilated body on a dirt logging trail in Montgomery County. Police investigators collected evidence and interviewed various family members and other witnesses who had intersected with Ogg in her final hours. They determined that Ogg had left her trailer-park home on the edge of Porter about 5:30 that afternoon, stopping briefly to buy a pack of smokes at a nearby convenience store. She had told the clerk she was going to a party with some friends. An hour and 45 minutes later, she was dead.

Three days after the killing, a detective interviewed Porter resident Mike Ringo. At about ten on the night of the murder, Ringo said, Criner pulled up at a friend's house in a dual-axle pickup he used while logging in rural Montgomery County. According to Ringo, Criner told a story about picking up a drunken hitchhiker between Porter and Kingwood. Ringo quoted Criner as saying he forced her to have sex after threatening her with a screwdriver, then drove her to Channelview and made her get out of the truck. Ringo's friend Terry Hooker, who was also there, told the detective a similar story, though the details differed slightly: Criner made the girl have oral sex with him, then dropped her off in Humble.

That was enough for the detective, who had the truck impounded. Jeff Pitts, who employed Criner and owned the truck, later related a third version of the story to officers, though the screwdriver and hitchhiker elements were the same.

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