In 2000, 37-year-old Jay Van Story received a startling letter from his 20-year-old cousin, Angie. There had been no contact between them in more than a decade, but Angie had recently married and become a Christian. Now she was suddenly asking Van Story for forgiveness.
"I hope that you understand and know that I was only a kid," Angie wrote. "I know I cannot make up for the time you have lost of your life, but I can try to make it up by getting you free."
Van Story has spent the last 15 years serving a life sentence for the aggravated sexual harassment of Angie. That 1989 Lubbock conviction was based primarily on her testimony that he had lain naked on top of her two years earlier, when she was seven years old.
Her later confession did not stop with a personal letter to the inmate. In 2000, University of Houston law professor David Dow began the Texas Innocence Network for students to delve into cases where defendants may have been wrongfully convicted. Not long after that, Angie contacted the group, seeking help in exonerating Van Story.
In late 2001, one of Dow's students took the 200-mile trip to Angie's home in East Texas, where she made a sworn affidavit. Angie swore that her real abuser, a brother, initially had forced her to tell her mother that Van Story had molested her.
As the lie spun out of control, investigators with Children's Protective Services in Lubbock did not believe her when she told them who really had molested her, she said. Angie had been moved into a foster home, and was threatened by authorities with never living with her mother again if she did not cooperate in the prosecution of Van Story, her affidavit says.
After his conviction, Van Story, described as a model inmate, says he was repeatedly assaulted by inmates. Texas motorists have never heard of him, but they know his work as a prison graphics worker -- he designed the state license plates festooned with the yucca, mounted cowboy, space shuttle and other emblems of the Lone Star State.
As for Angie, she eventually was returned to her home, where her real abuser continued his assaults on her, her affidavit states. (Her name has been changed in this story to protect her identity.)
"I am coming forward with the truth at this time," Angie concluded in her affidavit, "because my heart has been burdened by the fact that an innocent man is imprisoned because of my false testimony."
Known as an especially bright kid in Lubbock, Van Story quickly moved beyond the standard youthful stints of sacking groceries and busing restaurant tables. By age 16, he was a studio camera operator for newscasts at KLBK-TV in Lubbock. He was a cabbie for a year and then was a news photographer for another station there.
While still a teen, he moved to Austin where he worked behind the wheel of a UT shuttle bus and was a circulation sales manager for the Austin American-Statesman.
His legal troubles also began at a young age in 1985, while he was working at a school for emotionally challenged children. A nine-year-old boy under his care told school officials that Van Story had videotaped him taking a bath during a weekend visit at his home.
Van Story admits to that but says there was nothing sexual involved, that it was just a foolish stunt he did at an immature age.
Still, he was hit with a charge of sexual performance by a child, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Investigators noted that he'd previously been employed at the Lubbock State School, although interviews with every child under his care turned up no claims of inappropriate behavior.
Lubbock authorities did file two charges of indecency after finding a videotape in his family's home. It contained images of a mentally challenged boy walking around naked, and another boy mooning the camera. But relatives explained that it was a harmless family video of his two cousins, filmed with several amused adults present.
Van Story claims that CPS investigator Roger Bowers was angered when those two charges were dismissed in 1985, becoming convinced that Van Story posed a threat to children. Van Story maintains that the dismissals provided the motive for investigators and the D.A.'s office to build the later case against him.
Angie's affidavit says she was molested by her brother. Afraid of him, she told her mother it was Van Story, and the mother relayed that to CPS. Bowers and another investigator refused to listen to her real account of abuse by her brother -- or her words that Van Story was innocent, her affidavit states. Angie says she continued to lie during the trial because "Mr. Bowers told me it was the only way to get back with my Mom."
According to family members, Angie's mother confessed to her daughter on her deathbed three years ago that she too had lied -- saying Angie had told her about being molested by Van Story -- because she feared losing her children.
Bowers refused requests for an interview, and none of the agencies involved with this story will comment on Angie's affidavit. However, the earlier charges and conviction against Van Story appear to be one of their prime arguments against her now.
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.
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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In 2002, he worked for the new Texas Prison Museum, designing a series of panels depicting the history of the prison system. A museum official who worked closely with him then remembers Van Story as "very intellectual, very intelligent a model inmate."
His looks, his articulate manner and his situation have led some fellow inmates to nickname him Shawshank, in reference to Tim Robbins's character in the prison film The Shawshank Redemption.
In the meantime, he is trying to amass support in his effort for freedom, saying those who prosecuted him relied on intimidation and fabricated testimony.
"They abused their power, they abused the public's trust," Van Story says, "and they abused a little girl who just wanted to tell the truth."