Innocent at Last

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

Nevertheless, Mayes declined to set a bond that would release Criner, now 35, even though judges in two other Texas cases did just that following similar recommendations. He'd reconsider the bond request, he said -- after he returns from a two-week "business trip."

Jackie Criner shed only a few tears. She has seen her son wrongly convicted, then released by an appeals court a year later, then jailed again when the appeal was overturned. She has felt the joy of vindication when the first DNA test came back, then the crushing blow when the Court of Criminal Appeals said it wasn't enough. She has lost hope and regained it a thousand times. What's a few more weeks to wait, no matter how pointless the delay?

"I am the happiest lady walking the face of the earth right now," she says. "Thank God that Montgomery County has finally come to their senses."

System breakdown: Roy Criner served ten years for nothing.
Phillippe Diederich
System breakdown: Roy Criner served ten years for nothing.
In just a few weeks, Craig Lawson helped prove Criner's innocence.
Bob Burtman
In just a few weeks, Craig Lawson helped prove Criner's innocence.

"It's been a very hard road," she continues, as though ten years of relentless banging on doors to get justice for her son can be summarized in a simple sentence. She resents that the system conspired against Roy from the beginning and continued even after there was ample opportunity to do the right thing. "I'm not going to let this eat the rest of my life up, but no, I will never, ever be able to forgive."

Jackie Criner also believes that Roy would still be looking at a life sentence if it hadn't been for the efforts of the media, his lawyer, Bishop and Lawson. Montgomery County acted, she says, only after public pressure and new evidence made continued resistance untenable. "It ain't out of the goodness of their damn hearts," she says. "It's because they was forced into it."

It's not likely that those responsible for Criner's incarceration will apologize, or even acknowledge error. Montgomery County won't compensate him for stealing ten years of his life. Former prosecutor Walker, who admitted to withholding evidence in the case (though he is now backing away from his earlier statements), is the Republican nominee for county attorney. D.A. McDougal was re-elected in May with no opponent. Sharon Keller is likely to be elected presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals in November. Even now, they won't entirely let go of the idea that they got the right guy. "We still have his [three] statements," says Assistant D.A. McConnell. "I don't know what to do with those statements if they aren't true. You don't know for sure that he didn't 'do' somebody, either."

McConnell feels bad that perhaps Criner, a 35-year-old logger from New Caney, was innocent. But she believes the new DNA evidence had to emerge before the legal standard for recommending a pardon could be met. The fact that it did, she says, speaks on the system's behalf. "This whole process shows that [an injustice] can be found and caught," she says.

Judge Mayes said much the same thing at the pardon hearing. For those who believe the case shows that the system is broken, he admonished: "You are mistaken. It is this system that does now allow this man to receive … justice." Charlton disagrees. "If the system were working," he says, "Roy would have been out two years ago."

Were it not for an unusual confluence of circumstances, Charlton says, it's unlikely Criner would ever have gotten another chance. He mentions the Press, Frontline, Scheck, Bishop and especially the family, who never stopped fighting for Criner even when no one else cared. Typically, he neglects to mention himself, though his hours of volunteer work have been a significant element in the case. "If one of those things had been missing, Roy would still be in jail," he says. "When you look at all those factors, that's a good example of why the system didn't work."

Charlton wonders about other inmates who don't have relatives who communicate with them, let alone media or high-powered lawyers working for them. "Nobody's gonna give them the time of day, even though their claims of innocence are just as strong as Roy's," he says. "It's really, really frustrating."

Bishop is equally unsatisfied. There's still a murderer running loose, and he'll continue his investigation. "There's too many leads left that are pursuable," he says. "I think eventually that this case will be solved, if there's any persistence put to it at all."

And like Charlton, the constable remains uncomfortable with the way the system handled Criner -- the shoddy police investigation, the baffling response of the D.A.'s office to new evidence, the implications for others caught in similar nightmares. "How many of these people can afford to hire a private investigator to prove that they're entitled to another shot at the justice system?" he says. "I'm not a crusader, but I can see that it failed this young man, and it's probably failed others in the past and will fail others in the future."

Bishop pauses a moment. "You should never be ashamed of the truth."

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