After the Fall

An abuse victim says she lied to convict her cousin 15 years ago

As prosecutor Rebecca Atchley asked, "You do know about this guy's past, don't you?"

Van Story was first convicted in Angie's case in 1988. That verdict was overturned because the judge refused Van Story's request to represent himself. His court-appointed attorney had admitted to the court that he was unprepared for trial, and proved it during testimony by not following up on numerous inconsistencies in the prosecution's version of events.

Van Story in the mid-'90s: Fellow inmates nicknamed him Shawshank.
Van Story in the mid-'90s: Fellow inmates nicknamed him Shawshank.

At the 1989 retrial, Van Story represented himself.

"I had completely lost faith in the court-appointed system," he says. "But I knew exactly what the truth was and I felt it would be more difficult for any of the state witnesses to try and get any lies past me."

"Actually, he did a pretty good job," says Jared Tyler, a staff attorney for the Texas Innocence Network.

At the retrial, Van Story was able to get Angie to recant virtually every detail of her testimony from the first trial. She told jurors that her brother was the molester and that Bowers had threatened to remove the child from her mother unless she implicated Van Story.

Lubbock attorney Rod Hobson recalls watching part of that trial. He says talk around the courthouse then was that the D.A.'s office was "going to shit-can the case."

But the next day, prosecutor Atchley put Angie back on the stand. The nine-year-old seemed confused and unsure of what to say, but she went back to identifying Van Story as her molester.

The prosecution also sought to undermine Angie's earlier words by having two therapists testify. Though neither had been present during Angie's testimony, both said that she was likely traumatized from questioning by her alleged abuser.

"They presented this sort of Stockholm syndrome defense," says Hobson, referring to situations where hostages sometimes empathize with their captors.

"What I saw was this child being intimidated," says prosecutor Atchley. "We put the testimony on, and the jury made the call."

Angie wound up spending the next several years in foster homes, and says in her affidavit that the real abuser continued to molest her when she returned home at age 14.

Van Story's defenders contend that Angie's confusion and changing versions of events indicate that the girl's story was coached. In arguing that pressure was applied to the girl, they point to larger questions of ethical lapses by the prosecution during the tenure of Travis Ware as Lubbock D.A. from 1987 to 1994.

Former Lubbock police sergeant Bill Hubbard detailed many allegations of prosecution corruption in his book Substantial Evidence: A Whistleblower's True Tale of Corruption, Death and Justice. Ware and Atchley have been admonished by appellate courts for presenting false testimony. Both were ordered to pay Hubbard and another officer $300,000 for maliciously prosecuting them after the officers went public with their allegations regarding the D.A.'s office.

The Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston has the goals of exonerating the wrongfully convicted and training law students in evaluating and investigating claims of innocence. The 20 or so students taking Dow's "Innocence Investigations" class each semester read through hundreds of inmate letters to determine which cases are worthy of investigation.

They've had some successes. A student team investigated the case of James Byrd, who was convicted of a robbery he insisted he did not commit. Students got a videotaped confession from the actual robber, helping in Byrd's release from prison in 2002.

The network also represented Josiah Sutton in his attempts to gain a pardon after he had been wrongly convicted of rape based on faulty DNA evidence.

However, Van Story's case poses a particularly difficult challenge. Last year, the network filed a petition for a pardon based on actual innocence. But the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles requires that before the board can vote on such a petition, it must be agreed to by the trial judge, the prosecutor and the investigating law enforcement agency.

Neither the judge, the Lubbock County D.A.'s office or the Lubbock Police Department ever responded to that petition. Officials from the court and the police department did not respond to calls from the Press. Marilyn Lutter, spokeswoman for the Lubbock D.A., says the office doesn't investigate pardons and that they've "never approved one."

The Texas Innocence Network could ask for a new trial based on Angie's affidavit, but the group doesn't have the resources to represent people in court.

Tyler says that the network hopes to find an attorney in Lubbock willing to take on Van Story's appeal. He says the D.A.'s office won't even return his calls in response to Van Story's petition for a pardon.

Van Story says conditions for him have improved somewhat since the beatings and assaults that first awaited him at the Beto prison unit as a child molester. "I was a young, nonviolent, easygoing man, thrown into a den of street toughs, prison-hardened gangs and thugs," he says. "I didn't have a chance. It was an extended horror show."

He filed repeated grievances and finally gained a transfer to the safer Wynne Unit. For the past 11 years, Van Story has worked as a graphic designer at a prison license-plate factory. He's regularly written op-ed articles advocating penal and justice-system reforms.

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