Home Again

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

The morning of Roy's release began with the same surreal overtones that characterized the case from the beginning. At 8:30 a.m., Roy entered a Montgomery County courtroom in leg irons, handcuffs and prison-issue stripes, enraging the throng of relatives gathered for the occasion. But Roy seemed not to mind the indignity, transforming the short steps necessitated by his chains into a freedom dance, his face split by a blissful smile. It was the first time I'd seen his face register anything but pain.

Judge Mayes, who 17 days earlier had declined to set bond and release Roy -- despite signing a recommendation for his pardon -- launched into a bizarre soliloquy that stunned those in the courtroom. Comparing Roy to others who had triumphed over adversity through strength of character and will, Mayes invoked the Bible, the Magna Carta, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Albert Einstein and Ludwig Von Beethoven.

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.

The only legend he failed to mention, joked Jim Cooper later, would have provided the best opportunity of all. "Free at last, free at last..."

At least Mayes didn't repeat his theme from the previous hearing: that the lesson to be learned from Roy's case is that the system works, if slowly. That would come the next day from Attorney General John Cornyn, interviewed on KPRC radio. The same John Cornyn who wrote an op-ed piece in February declaring that although other states may have convicted and executed innocent people, we have not, because "this is Texas."

The purpose of the hearing was to revisit the bond request, which Mayes had agreed to do after he returned from a two-week "business trip." This time, the judge came through -- the day after the Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended a pardon and Governor George Bush agreed to sign it. Not the gustiest move, given the inevitability of Roy's exoneration, but Mayes tried to spin it as bold and decisive. Justice means taking action, he said, or something similar, and we're going to do just that. Thanks, Judge.

It was hard not to feel anger at Mayes for his self-serving, overblown prattle. Or at D.A. McDougal and his assistant Gail McConnell, who acted appropriately sympathetic at the hearing -- after the judge's ruling, McConnell gave Jackie Criner a big hug. They still defend their actions, in denial that their continual efforts to keep Roy imprisoned took an additional three years from his life. I was reminded of the Polish peasants interviewed in the Holocaust film Shoah, who 40 years later still didn't understand that their collaborations with the Nazis had been anything but justified. It could happen again, I thought then, and think now.

About the only player on the wrong side in the Criner saga who had the sense to lay low and keep her mouth shut was Sharon Keller. Her 1997 opinion dismissing the DNA evidence brought national embarrassment and ridicule on the state's highest criminal court. Her Kafkaesque comments on Frontline furthered her dubious reputation. Yet she has never apologized, or admitted she made a mistake. And the citizens of Texas are about to elect Keller to the influential presiding-judge position, where her twisted view of the law will no doubt be used again and again to deny innocent people a shot at a new trial.

Those are wearying thoughts, and I feel guilty for allowing them to distract from Roy's (literal) day in the sun and the satisfaction of having played a role in his release. But it's been that kind of emotional roller-coaster for two and a half years: believing first that justice would prevail, then having hope dim, only to be resurrected again. To have one's most frustrating professional experience instantly transform into the most satisfying. In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the bitter from the sweet.

Of course, that mixed bag is nothing compared to what Roy and his family went through. After Mayes adjourned the hearing, Jackie walked unsteadily down the hallway past the gaggle of cameras, tears streaming down her face, saying, "He's coming home, he's coming home." Even though the morning was only the final step in a process that could no longer be reversed, she hadn't allowed herself to believe it was actually going to happen until the judge pounded the gavel.

Roy summed it up perfectly for the clueless reporter who asked how it felt to be free. "I can't even begin to tell you, ma'am," he said.

When I first met the Criner family at the home of Jackie's sister, none of us knew quite what to think. They had no reason to trust the media, which had not been gracious to Roy when he'd been arrested, charged, tried and convicted. I remember Jackie's air of desperation, her touching gratitude that anyone might be interested in her son's case. Now she's handling interviews on national television like an old pro.

I still haven't talked to Roy. I got to shake his hand as he walked to the van that would take him back home. Next week, when he has had a chance to be with family and away from the craziness, I'll give him a call and see if maybe I can pay him a visit and take him out for a burger.

It would be an honor.

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