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.

When the detective displayed the half-dozen mugs at the same time, Yvette and Deandra both pointed to O'Bryant. Paul, sitting in another room, did so as well.

But things went a bit differently in Paul's interview, a tape shows. Twenty minutes after they discussed the day's events, the detective, H.A. Chavez, presented Paul with the six-pack, the photos of the black males in their mid-twenties staring out at him. The boy, quiet, looked over them. He pointed to No. 5 — O'Bryant's picture. He recognized that one. "Looks just like C-Note," he said.

The same shape. The same structure. "But," he added, "it's not."

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.

Chavez asked him for confirmation. Paul nodded. It looked like him — "he had a fat, chubby face" — but they were different. "Do me a favor," Chavez said, leaning over. "Circle the picture, the whole picture, of the one you say looks like the guy that did this." Paul circled. "Sign your name, date."

And that was it. No additional note on the paper. Nothing to show that Paul had just said that this one, this fifth man of the six-pack, wasn't the shooter in question. Chavez then told Paul that his brother had died — the 15-year-old didn't yet know — and walked out. Paul's lanky body curled in on itself, and his head fell.

O'Bryant stewed. Days passed, and he remained in jail. There was no movement. Christmas passed, with a week's worth of waiting afterward through New Year's. "That first Christmas without my son?" Newman recalls. "Devastating. Just devastating...I had to pull over on the side of the street just thinking about it. Just pull over and cry."

As his time bled into 2011, it became apparent that O'Bryant's family couldn't post bail. They couldn't do anything to get him out, back to his daughter, back to his life. They also couldn't afford more than the court-appointed lawyer who came along with the charges, a man whose lack of interest, according to Newman, was matched only by his disorganization.

A month slid by, then two. All the while, Newman harangued the attorney. She tried to obtain the video evidence from the locales they had visited that morning in December, but in some cases either fake cameras left no such evidence or the video was not readily available to the public; the post office, for example, required a court order to release the film from that day. She tried to get the lawyer to go to court to get the video released. He brushed it off.

Seven months in, with weekly visits to her son becoming routine, Newman finally confronted his lawyer, demanding the police report. "That was it," she says. "It was like he was seeing the report for the first time." She tossed her hands up and walked out.

Days later, Newman approached Sparks, noted for his work in the African-American community, often seen in his fedoras and French cuffs. He took the case, cajoling a bail-bond company into lending the funds to free O'Bryant. More than half a year after his arrest — and on his 30th birthday — O'Bryant walked out, his mother and sister waiting. "I knew once I came home, then I can start operating," he says. "I can get to a lawyer. I can let him know. I'm fixing to ride this river, but I can operate now."

He and Newman, whom O'Bryant still calls Mama, took a four-mile walk along the nearby golf course, talking for hours. "You've got to understand — I'm a true mother," Newman says. "This is all I have." Newman's child was back. But Tyliyah was gone. Her mother, who'd promised to keep the family together while O'Bryant was in prison, had left. She'd run. And she'd taken the seven-year-old with her.

Sparks, meanwhile, scouted the neighborhood in which the shooting had taken place. He traced the gravel, walking around where the footprints had been found. He pored through the evidence. He found that any videotape that could have been used to help his client had been destroyed — neither the court-appointed lawyer nor the investigators had produced video evidence of O'Bryant at any of the locations he said he'd visited that morning. "The shooter was clean-shaven, but Roderick had facial hair — his sideburns, his mustache," Sparks said. "And I still have no idea who Uncle Junior is...The police out here, they don't believe you're innocent until proven guilty."

Sparks gathered the documents to defend his client, filing for Brady materials, packaging it all for his case. The prosecutors, meanwhile, had come forward with an offer: 30 years in exchange for a guilty plea. Sparks turned to O'Bryant. "There wasn't a question," the lawyer remembers. "He was going to fight it."

The trial began last April. Assistant District Attorney Rachel Palmer, who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment in a 2011 case involving the HPD's evidence-collection systems — she claimed she could have incriminated herself — had been tasked with prosecuting the case. But the holes opened quickly, and it didn't take long for them to begin piling up.

First, as Sparks related, there was the lack of gunshot residue on O'Bryant's hand. Neither the murder weapon nor the getaway bicycle was ever found, despite prompt searches of both O'Bryant's house and Newman's car. Uncle Junior was never interviewed. And while O'Bryant owns a pair of Jordans, his Jumpman, slate gray, didn't match the crimson on C-Note's shoes. None of the ad hoc pieces of evidence fit.

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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.


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.


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

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