Hard Time

Even in his freshly laundered prison whites, Roy Criner has a darkness about him that casts a long shadow in the visitor's room at the Darrington Unit. A hulking man whose brow seems eternally furrowed in an expression of confusion, Criner certainly looks capable of committing the rape he was convicted of in 1990, or worse.

His track record only bolsters that notion. Twice arrested for assaulting police officers, he had a reputation in his Montgomery County hometown of New Caney as a hot-headed bruiser who would fight at the slightest provocation. Since he's been in prison, he's engaged several inmates in battle and done time in solitary as a result. "I have to control my temper," Criner admits glumly.

Criner's present circumstance is in keeping with the rest of his life. A slow learner with an I.Q. hovering around 70, he was lumped with Down syndrome students in grade school and had to endure the chronic taunts of his classmates. His high school football team lost every game; his parents split up on homecoming night. He still mourns the death of his girlfriend, who was murdered the day after New Year's. A loner and misfit serving a life sentence, the 33-year-old Criner has been discarded by society, forgotten except by a handful of family members and his attorney.

About the only thing Roy Criner has going for him is that he may well be innocent. But if you're dealt a losing hand in life, even the trump cards can turn out to be worthless.

On July 9, 1997, the objective findings of modern science gave Criner reason to dream again of life outside prison. That day, the results of a DNA test proved without doubt that it was not his semen found inside Deanna Ogg's body in 1986.

Six months later, state District Judge Michael Mayes recommended that, in the wake of the DNA evidence, the man convicted of sexually assaulting Ogg should get a new trial. Criner thought that maybe, just maybe, his ordeal was nearing its end.

On the other hand, after more than ten years bouncing between freedom and prison, of seeing his sentence overturned only to be reinstated, Criner knew that good news often has a rotten aftertaste. And in May, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled 53 that, DNA test or no DNA test, Criner would not get another chance to make his case before a jury.

The split reflects a broader division of opinion about the case of Roy Wayne Criner, whose conviction has been fraught with problems from the beginning. The DNA evidence is but the latest revelation that casts serious doubt on the verdict.

When he was arrested a month after the crime, Criner faced more than a rape charge -- Ogg, a 16-year-old New Caney High School student, had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death, and a grand jury indicted him for capital murder as well as aggravated sexual assault. But the murder count was eventually dropped because of insufficient evidence, and Criner wasn't brought to trial on the rape charge until four years later because investigators needed more time to scour the landscape for additional evidence. They never found any.

At trial, prosecutor David Walker hammered on a crucial piece of evidence that helped convict the defendant: a screwdriver recovered from the truck Criner was allegedly driving when he committed the crime (according to the coroner, the stab wounds inflicted on the victim were consistent with screwdriver punctures). But the screwdriver was never presented in court, because it had inexplicably vanished during the investigation. Walker now says that an examination of the screwdriver showed no link to the killing, though the defense was never informed of this.

In fact, not a shred of evidence has ever tied Criner directly to the victim, even though prosecutors had plenty to work with. Investigators gathered various blood and tissue samples and other items at the scene where her body was found. They dusted and swabbed the truck from bumper to bumper, drew Criner's fluids and combed through his personal effects. No matching fingerprints, no hairs in the wrong place, no connection of any kind.

Aside from the references to the screwdriver, the most damaging testimony came from three witnesses who testified that Criner had told them a story about picking up a young female hitchhiker and coercing her into having oral sex with him. But the three versions of the story differed from each other, and none of them bore more than a passing resemblance to the actual crime.

Moreover, a Houston Press examination of police files, court records and other documents as well as more than two dozen interviews disclosed a number of disturbing facts about the case, facts that were either withheld from the defense or never presented to the court on Criner's behalf by his lawyers. Two key pieces of evidence collected at the crime scene, for example, point toward an assailant other than Criner, yet the police and prosecution conveniently ignored them.

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Bob Burtman