Innocent Bystander: An Innocent Man Wins in Court But Loses in the Long Run

Roderick O'Bryant got sucked into a court case that stole his life from him.

Innocent Bystander: An Innocent Man Wins in Court But Loses in the Long Run
Roderick O'Bryant isn't surprised when he hears the knocks, thick and rapid, on his door. He knows the Houston Police Department wants him. After he returned from the morning's errands, his neighbor, Larry, had warned the 29-year-old that the law wanted to question him concerning a shooting a few blocks east. O'Bryant knows the those five cruisers turning onto his Trinity Gardens street are there for him.

The knocks sound again. O'Bryant swells out his chest. He opens the door and makes eye contact with the lead officer. "Are you C-Note?" the officer asks.

O'Bryant stands firm. "Never heard the name in my life." O'Bryant goes by Rock or Junior, depending on the crowd. Not a C-Note around him.

Roderick O'Bryant, flanked by his sister, Kenethia O'Bryant, and his mother, Ava Newman, was found not guilty of murder in early May — but lost nearly everything anyway.
Photo by Daniel Kramer
Roderick O'Bryant, flanked by his sister, Kenethia O'Bryant, and his mother, Ava Newman, was found not guilty of murder in early May — but lost nearly everything anyway.
Shelton Sparks, O'Bryant's lawyer, was successful in showing the jury that the case against his client was a weak one.
Photo by Daniel Kramer
Shelton Sparks, O'Bryant's lawyer, was successful in showing the jury that the case against his client was a weak one.

Doesn't matter, though, at least to the officer. It's late December 2010, and the police escort him to their cruiser as the sun burns through the morning dew. O'Bryant's mother, Ava Newman, bundles his seven-year-old daughter, Tyliyah, into her arms. The girl's tears come quickly. "We good, Pooky," O'Bryant says, looking over at her and soothing his only child. "We good."

And he thinks he is. "I knew that they were here and that I had to just psych myself up and go along with it." O'Bryant knows there has been a shooting, but he has no idea that nearly a mile away, C-Note — a clean-shaven twentysomething with an automatic in his waistband and a dark teardrop tattoo under his eye — has just dropped a 19-year-old, Dequarusis Turner. O'Bryant has no idea that the young man's mother and brother and sister and uncle have seen C-Note shout to the family, to the world, "They call me C-Note on the street!"

O'Bryant couldn't have known. This is Christmas season, and he has spent the morning with his own family finishing the shopping the season demands. Which makes the evidence cobbled together against O'Bryant — from eyewitnesses alone — that much stranger, especially since one witness explicitly says that O'Bryant is not the shooter. "The detectives said that once I get my mom down here to get this straightened out, I could leave," O'Bryant remembers. So he goes along, cuffed, while his daughter wails over the sirens.

And it did get sorted out, eventually. In early May, with O'Bryant facing murder charges for Turner's death, a jury found the defendant not guilty. He broke down. He walked. The system had worked.

His lawyer had matched theatrics with rhetoric. The evidence crumbled, and O'Bryant was exonerated, his record wiped for this crime. Those on his side rejoiced at the ruling.

Except, as O'Bryant lets the verdict sink in, the reality remains that such freedom is looking like little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

It took 30 months for the ruling to come down. It cost the man his job — his former health-care employer couldn't hold a position open for someone who'd spent seven consecutive months in jail and nearly two years more under the cloud of accusation. And it ended up taking his daughter, the one who had witnessed her father's arrest, from him. Tyliyah's mother wants her to have nothing to do with an accused murderer. She doesn't care that the claims have been expunged. She doesn't care that O'Bryant wants his daughter back. All she knows is that O'Bryant just spent two and a half years fighting a murder charge.
_____________________

That arrest wasn't O'Bryant's first tangle with the law. He had been in and out of the judicial system since he was 21. Possession. Trespassing. Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, good for three years' probation. He'd never done serious time, but his promising basketball career, which took him from Houston to Chico State, fizzled after the run-ins.

And then Tyliyah. His daughter. His daughter changed everything. "He worships the ground she walks on — absolutely worships it," Newman says. When Kenethia, Roderick's older sister, got the call about the arrest, Tyliyah instantly removed all doubt. "It was his day with Tyliyah — he wasn't going more than two feet without her," she remembers. "That's how I knew [he] didn't do it."

That day, that morning of December 21, 2010, was O'Bryant's to spend with his daughter. He woke her with her favorites — a plate of eggs and a DVD of The Little Mermaid. They took in a few scenes, then walked to the Food Mart, almost a mile away, to get her something to drink and to pick up a pack of cigarettes for him.

O'Bryant lived with his grandmother, a woman in her 70s whose mobility was as challenged as her recall, and he greeted the home health nurse upon returning from the store. Meals on Wheels followed around 9:30 a.m., completing the morning routine. "Just a day," he says. "It was just a day."

Newman then parked outside, heading in. Four days before Christmas — only so much time to purchase gifts for everyone. Gathering the grandmother and Tyliyah into the backseat, the family then ran through the list of the day's stopovers. There was O'Bryant's check to cash, at the nearby Chase. There was the package to send to those outside Houston, with the post office coming next. And then there were the trinkets to pick up for themselves, over at Family Dollar, over at Kroger.

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5 comments
mikesurack
mikesurack

Every time we hear or read about innocent folks being eaten alive by our so-called 'justice' system, there are dozens of others who suffer in anonymity.  Marc Anderson 1981 you are right on the money with the comment you made below.  Speaking of money, the only way to get justice in America is to purchase it.  I see much the same thing coming soon to our healthcare industry now that O-care is in effect, but that is outside the scope of this topic so I will shut up about it.

jill_emt
jill_emt

I read this story and know this family's agony.  My husband also was accused of something he did not do and because he had dealt with the justice system in the past, it seems that is all the police and prosecutors saw.  He spent 3-1/2 years in Harris county jail awaiting trial before he got his freedom back.  In the meanwhile, bankruptcy, bills, missed birthdays and Christmas' away from a new wife who had a stroke within a month of his arrest.  Deaths of several family members occurred and there was nothing he could do but sit in jail and wait.  He also contracted a nasty Staph infection in jail and was hospitalized and underwent multiple surgeries.  He now works doing "what he can" and will never be on the earning track he was on prior to this injustice.  We are not African American, but white, so I believe the prosecutors and police don't look beyond a person's past (even if they have overcome it) and don't consider it a race issue, but YES, they do need to reconsider how they do their jobs and consider someone innocent until proven guilty.  Thank you for sharing your story and helping us to not feel so alone.

marc_anderson_1981
marc_anderson_1981

The U.S. Criminal Justice System: Big on Criminal, not so much on the Justice.

 
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