Catch-22

George Dismukes shouts his innocence. The parole board prefers contrition.

The case against George Dismukes never had much substance. The state accused him of shooting Richard Tyson, who on the evening of December 24, 1991, was driving in the Montgomery County subdivision where Dismukes lived. Tyson had no apparent business on the street, which ended in a cul-de-sac. According to the prosecution, Dismukes was a vigilante who confronted strangers in the neighborhood, and Tyson was an unwitting victim. He was found lying on the street, a bullet in his head, his pickup truck still running.

The state's case hinged on two bits of evidence: A mother and son who lived in a house near where the murder took place testified that they saw Dismukes following Tyson's pickup in his own truck; and two watered-down spots of Tyson's blood were found low on the driver's-side door of Dismukes's vehicle. Beyond that, the state offered a few witnesses who said they'd seen Dismukes brandish a gun, various people who supported the "vigilante" characterization, and a few odds and ends. Though no weapon was found, the prosecutor made a big deal over a photo of a child holding a gun that they found in a Houston apartment that Dismukes kept. "Obviously, the purpose of this is to show this man had access to a .38 caliber" handgun, the prosecutor stated.

The photo, as it turned out, was a still from a public-service film Dismukes had made about childhood suicide. Since Dismukes didn't own a gun, he borrowed it from a friend, Joe West, and gave it back when the shoot was finished. Attorney Phil Swisher, a friend of Dismukes's, was there when West offered the loan. Swisher was going to testify to that effect, but Judge James Keeshan wouldn't let him in the courtroom. Among other things, Swisher had been critical of Keeshan's infamous prosecution of Clarence Brandley, convicted of murder but later found innocent. "There was a time in history when the good judge really didn't like me," Swisher recalls with a chuckle.

The blood was easily explained, at least by Dismukes and his supporters. When Dismukes got a call from a neighbor that a man had been shot down the street, he and his wife, Sherry (then his girlfriend), rushed to the scene. She had training as a nurse and brought her stethoscope; after finding no pulse on the victim, she slipped, and her hand dipped in the pool of blood that had spread from the body. Dismukes found an empty beer can in his truck, filled it with water from a ditch and poured the fluid over her hands. Apparently a couple of drops splashed onto the door.

Dismukes did indeed confront an occasional stranger, though he says he never threatened anyone. He and Sherry had helped found the subdivision's neighborhood watch program in response to a rash of thefts and dumpings. "Practically every morning there would be a stolen or stripped car down here," says Fannie Brown, a subdivision resident who says there's no way Dismukes could have committed the crime. "Trash, you couldn't keep it picked up. My house was broke into twice when I first moved out here."

Moreover, many of the witnesses against Dismukes had an ax to grind, including the mother-son tandem: They ran the subdivision's homeowners association, and Dismukes had been crosswise with them over maintenance fees and other issues. He'd written them angry letters, which the prosecution used to enhance his image as potentially violent. "The homeowners association was a mess, and still is," says Brown, still feisty at 87. "A couple of old biddies run it, and if they don't like you…" She trails off, the implication clear.

Two other friends of Dismukes's, Harris County Sheriff's Department detectives Tony and Anne Rossi, did some digging on the case. What they learned convinced them that Dismukes was innocent. The neighbors testified that they knew the time when Dismukes allegedly followed Tyson (just before 5 p.m.) because they were watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Johnny Mathis was on, the son said. But the Rossis checked and found that Mathis had been on about half an hour earlier.

A neighbor who lived at the end of the cul-de-sac, James Wistinghause, testified that he didn't know the victim. Wistinghause had a lengthy criminal record that included a probated sentence for attempted capital murder of a police officer. The Rossis heard after the trial that Wistinghause and his wife boarded horses on the victim's land. The relationship between the families might have explained what Tyson was doing in the neighborhood in the first place, since he had no other business there.

But Montgomery County detectives latched on to Dismukes as the prime suspect and apparently investigated no one else, even though Dismukes passed a lie-detector test. The Rossis would have continued their probe, but Montgomery County law enforcement got wind of it and complained to their superiors in Harris County. Since then, Wistinghause has died; his wife, Lynne, has moved away and could not be located for comment. "None of us thought George was gonna be convicted," says Tony Rossi, who testified for Dismukes in the punishment phase. "When I got on the stand, I said very plainly, 'You got the wrong guy.' "

George Jacobs, who represented Dismukes at trial, may have had other things on his mind. At the time, he was under federal indictment for financial irregularities that eventually resulted in a conviction and house arrest. According to Dismukes, Jacobs failed to tell him about the issue until two weeks before trial. Jacobs disputes that assertion. "He knew it months before," Jacobs says, "because it was in the papers and on the news."

Swisher remains outraged by the verdict. "The more I see of the system, the less faith I have in it," he says. " 'Beyond a reasonable doubt' is just a fairy tale."

In his first two parole presentations, Dismukes focused strongly on his innocence. But he was told that it wasn't the board's job to second-guess the judge and jury, so he soft-pedaled the issue the last time. But board member Cynthia Tauss seemed concerned about it anyway, asking attorney Gary Polland to have Dismukes draw a detailed map of the crime scene with annotated explanations. Tauss says she asked for the map only because she "thought it would be helpful to future board members." Regardless, by the time Dismukes produced the information and Polland delivered it, Tauss had already voted him down.

The innocence question has Dismukes in a catch-22: One of the things Tauss looks for in an inmate is contrition, and as long as he refuses to admit his guilt, he can't be contrite. But if he changes his story just to meet Tauss's requirement, he will appear to have been lying from the start. "Texas has had a very difficult time accepting the fact that we have had wrongful convictions," says Swisher. "This is a good example of an innocent man stuck in the system."

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