Home Again

Ten years brings the Texas justice system to its senses. Roy Criner's free.

The first people to greet Roy Criner when he emerged from the Montgomery County Jail were the camera crews, swarming like gnats around the door of the squad car that had escorted him from the rear gate. Slowly he made his way to the makeshift podium for a brief statement. His mother, Jackie, milled at the back of the pack, craning her neck for a view like a gawker watching movie stars arrive at the Oscars. Finally some relatives called her to the forefront, and she and her son embraced. He moved a few steps and reunited with his father, Donald, before stepping up to the mike.

I wasn't really listening to his remarks. Instead, I watched the cluster of people behind him whose labor had resulted in his freedom after a decade in prison for a crime he didn't commit: his parents, aunt and uncle Brenda and Jacques Verron, attorneys Mike Charlton and Jim Cooper and other family members. Next to me on the periphery was Montgomery County Constable Travis Bishop, whose work proved instrumental in getting Roy out. The moment was as gratifying as we all had known it would be; it was, by itself, enough.

For a guy who had been robbed of ten years by the justice system and had stared at the sword of Damocles for an additional four, Roy seemed remarkably composed. The New Caney logger tolerated stupid questions from the media horde with the patience reserved for toddlers, despite his desire to get the hell away from the jail as quickly as possible. I wondered if he was nervous that the law would suddenly appear and tell him sorry, we've changed our minds, you've got to go back.

Day in the sun: Roy and his mom celebrate his freedom.
AP/Wide World/Brett Coomer
Day in the sun: Roy and his mom celebrate his freedom.

I wouldn't have blamed him. It had happened before, several times, starting in 1992, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reinstated his rape conviction in the brutal 1986 assault and murder of 16-year-old Deanna Ogg. That conviction had been overturned by an appellate court for lack of evidence. Roy had thought his ordeal had ended, but it was a long way from over. The judges in Austin reversed the decision.

It happened again in 1997, when the Court of Criminal Appeals once more subverted justice by denying Roy a new trial after DNA tests proved that the semen found in the victim wasn't his. Rejecting District Judge Michael Mayes's call for a new trial, the court ruled that the DNA evidence didn't prove Roy's innocence. Judge Sharon Keller stated that because the victim was known to be promiscuous, she could have had sex with someone well before the murder. Keller argued that Roy then raped and killed her, and either failed to ejaculate or wore a condom.

Keller expounded on her theory to PBS Frontline producer Ofra Bikel. If the DNA test had come up positive, she said, it would have meant something. A negative result, on the other hand, didn't mean anything.

That ruling by Keller marked the beginning of the final push to clear Roy's name, a group effort that would take three years. Tipped by a tiny story in the local daily, the Houston Press spent several months examining the case (see "Hard Time," by Bob Burtman, September 10, 1998). The investigation revealed numerous major flaws in the state's case and uncovered a piece of evidence that would later prove pivotal: a cigarette butt.

It didn't seem like much at first glance; just a line on a police report detailing the items collected at the crime scene. There was no description of the butt, and no mention of it in any subsequent police filings. At trial, prosecutor David Walker told Roy's attorney he didn't know where the butt was being kept, and the subject was dropped until the Press inquiry eight years later. Walker told the Press he didn't think the butt had any importance.

He was wrong. District Attorney Mike McDougal denied access to the evidence, but Press intern Toby Coleman spotted it in a crime scene photograph, a long brown stub lying about three feet from the body. The victim, we learned, smoked a brand with a white filter. Roy didn't smoke. Toby and I both felt the cigarette had been smoked by the killer, and we stumped to have it tested. It would take another year and a half to get it done.

The Frontline broadcast in January elevated the case to national attention and generated the collective outrage and public pressure that would ultimately force the state to issue its pardon. Attorney Barry Scheck arranged funding for critical DNA tests on the cigarette butt. (The lab found a match between the semen in Ogg's body and DNA in the filter, which shot down the state's theory of consensual sex before the murder.) Travis Bishop and investigator Craig Lawson worked the case from the law enforcement side, uncovering new evidence that pointed away from Roy.

And Roy's family continued knocking on any door they could find, looking for allies, pleading his case to whomever would listen. They'd been doing it for ten years, before anyone outside Montgomery County had ever heard of Roy Criner, when most of those who knew the name were convinced of his guilt. It finally paid off.

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