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.

As Sparks detailed the lack of matching physical evidence, it became clear that the only claims against O'Bryant stemmed from the grieving relatives' accounts. But as the lawyer described them, such testimonies and assertions were as ragged as the rest of the evidence. The shooter, according to Yvette, had been clean-shaven with a tattoo over his cheekbone; O'Bryant, picked up but hours after the Food Mart murder, had a patchy beard on his face, and not a tattoo to be seen. "I remember when [Turner's] mom was up there — I'll never forget it," O'Bryant remembers. "Said he had this green tattoo, and I instantly just thought, 'Well, I know they ain't talking about me.'"

Moreover, Sparks pointed out, the methodologies behind O'Bryant's identification had been shown to be far less reliable than other approaches. The lawyer called Charles Weaver, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, as an expert witness to detail the difficulties with such methods. As O'Bryant's sister said, "All their expert witnesses were basically defending him."

The proceedings moved quickly, with both prosecution and defense cycling through witnesses and testimony that increasingly pointed in one direction. During cross-examination of one of the detectives, the question of the receipts came up, and the investigator on the stand admitted that most of them had been discarded. But, the detective continued, they'd known O'Bryant had been at the Food Mart. The receipt from his early-morning purchase with Tyliyah — that was the one they'd opted to keep.

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.

Sparks, though, had no idea the receipt existed. It had never been turned over. "They decided not to share it with us beforehand," Sparks later said, his voice tinged with anger.

Hearing that news, Sparks gathered himself. "And why would O'Bryant walk all the way back to the Mart after he'd already bought his things that morning?" he asked. The detective shrugged. No answer.

"I just wonder how many folks go down the river, young kids, because they cannot have good legal representation," Newman added. "And I know it has to be many. It has to be many...There were just so many things they didn't do that [the police] should have done."

The Harris County District Attorney's office didn't return repeated requests for an interview, even though the Press spoke directly with Palmer. We still don't know why they thought they had a case against O'Bryant. We'll never know whether, as O'Bryant and his family believe, there was a racial component in all of this.

"It's this frame," Sparks said weeks later, tracing a box in the air. "They were taking all these things, all these things that didn't fit there, and putting them right in that frame. And they just kept putting them in, over and over and over again."

Five days after the trial began, the jury gathered for closing statements. A handful of HPD officers packed the front row. "A sign of force," Sparks says. "Solidarity."

Sparks approached the jurors for his closing pitch. He drew a box in the air, the same frame he would draw for a visitor weeks later, with his index fingers. He talked about the evidence forced into a box — all of it, into this one frame, burrowing into O'Bryant's life. Reaching into his pocket, Sparks produced a battered copy of the Constitution he'd brought to the hearing. He began reading. "'We the people,'" he said. "That's us. That's who this is talking about. Us."

The jury deliberated for three hours, and approached the judge. The verdict was read. Not guilty. The system had worked as it should. O'Bryant turned to his mother and, as Sparks said, "bawled. He just bawled like a baby."

O'Bryant's record has since been expunged of this crime — none of his ordeal will follow him, legally. In a sense, it's as if none of it had ever happened. But since the ruling, the 31-year-old has been working odd jobs. His health-care position is gone, so he cleans yards. He harvests scrap metal. He helps his pastor, who was there to witness the verdict, where he can. Nothing steady — no prospects in sight. "He's gathering metal, old cans, selling all this stuff, doing what you have to do," Ava Newman says. "Like Fred Sanford!" adds Kenethia, attempting to crack the tension.

Meanwhile, someone who knows O'Bryant's name has pocketed up to $5,000 from Crime Stoppers, which hands out the award simply for a felony charge, rather than an actual conviction. C-Note, too, is still out there, cycling, free. O'Bryant said he heard C-Note's name once in prison, but both he and those investigating still have no idea who this flabby, tear-tatted murderer may be.

And as O'Bryant thinks back on it, he wonders, along with his family, what the prosecutors could have possibly thought. He wonders how anyone presumed such a prosecution could succeed.

"I honestly think it was a profile," O'Bryant says. "Period. Racial profile." His family murmurs approval.

Sparks doesn't rule it out. "It's not, what can they do to prevent this from happening again — it's pretty much, will they do their job?" he asks. "To me, that's what it boils down to. If you'd just sit down, and you know this is your job, this is what you have to do to survive — if this is what you have a passion for, then do your job...Freedom isn't free. Sometimes you have to fight for it."

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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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