Innocent at Last

After ten years, prosecutors finally concede that Roy Criner is not guilty and should be free

Bishop immediately hired private investigator Craig Lawson, a former lieutenant in the constable's office, and assigned him to the case full-time. Lawson sat down with the Verrons and Jackie Criner, Roy's mother. "They had the case laid out on the table," he says. He was quickly convinced of Criner's innocence.

Lawson found a cold trail. Though the D.A.'s office allegedly had been investigating the case for a year and a half, no new leads had developed -- because almost nothing had been done. "It was a totally closed case when I started working on it," Lawson says.

Assistant D.A. Gail McConnell, who has been in charge of the case, says her office just didn't have the means to pursue such investigations. "It was a matter of resources," she says. "We don't have an investigator assigned to handle [appeal] cases, or cases where we've already gotten a conviction."

Montgomery County Constable Travis Bishop: "They had the case laid out on the table."
Deron Neblett
Montgomery County Constable Travis Bishop: "They had the case laid out on the table."

Within a few days, Lawson located one promising piece of evidence -- in the D.A.'s office. Last September an inmate wrote McDougal a letter saying he had knowledge of the Ogg murder. Fellow inmate Billy Nobles, he wrote, had implicated himself and given details of the crime that could have been known only by someone with direct involvement. McConnell and a detective had tried to question the inmate who wrote the letter, but had been rebuffed, and the letter had been stuffed in a file. Lawson and Bishop had more success: They obtained a lengthy statement from the snitch that elaborated on the letter. But the evidence was circumstantial, Nobles denied any involvement (he was released from prison this year and now lives with the victim's brother), and a DNA test found no match with the semen.

Still, Lawson's digging was paying off. He found others who seemed to have knowledge of the crime, many of whom acted extremely nervous. He obtained saliva and blood samples and ran them to Austin for testing at the state crime lab. In one instance, a possible suspect refused to cooperate and demanded a lawyer. Minutes later he spit on the ground; Lawson scooped it up as a DNA sample and left.

Meanwhile, a tiny brown piece of evidence was jetting across the country and back, looking for an analysis. A cigarette butt found alongside Ogg's body had been identified by the Press as potentially crucial, because Criner didn't smoke and the victim smoked a different brand (in fact, she purchased a pack of her brand shortly before the murder). No one had looked at the butt for years or even mentioned it since it was collected the day after the crime. In response to defense requests, McDougal had the butt tested for DNA at the Department of Public Safety's Houston crime lab in May 1999. The test used up all the filter paper, the richest potential source of DNA. According to the lab report, "An insufficient amount of nuclear DNA could be extracted for analysis."

But earlier this year, attorney Scheck arranged to have the remains of the butt tested at Forensic Science Associates in California, one of the world's most sophisticated DNA labs. The result: Two people smoked the cigarette. Neither was Roy Criner.

The lab did not have the DNA from the semen found in Ogg, however, and could not make the final connection: If the cigarette butt and semen matched, that would essentially prove that the rape occurred where her body had been found, and would blow the state's theory of consensual sex beforehand out of the water.

That was left to DPS serologist Jody Williams in Austin. She applied a more exacting analysis on the cigarette butt material and came up with the same result: Two people had smoked that cigarette. Williams also identified them: Ogg and the person whose semen was found in the victim's body.

Williams took her analysis a step further. She examined the panties Ogg had been wearing, and based on DNA evidence in the material determined that the semen could have been deposited only after the panties had been removed. There was no consensual sex before the crime. The state's case against Criner had evaporated.


On Friday, July 28, state District Court Judge Michael Mayes read a prepared statement to a Montgomery County courtroom packed with members of the Criner family and the media. "This court feels the pain and anger from both sides of this case," Mayes began, acknowledging the victim's family as well as the assemblage.

"Justice is not a static, unmoving and unliving thing," the judge continued. He offered an abridged history of the legal twists and turns in the case. Mayes was the judge who had recommended a new trial when the first DNA test excluded Criner. After the latest evidence, he said, he could only conclude that Criner was innocent, and he would sign a request for a pardon. The recommendation now awaits the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which might take up to 90 days to make a decision (though sources indicate the ruling could come much sooner), after which Bush would have to make the pardon official.

The board could still reject the recommendation, which was also signed by D.A. McDougal and Sheriff Guy Williams. But that's unlikely, given the public outcry that would inevitably follow, and the implications for the Bush campaign.

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