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.
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.
All the while, their appetites were growing. Almost three hours into the errands, O'Bryant and his family swung through McDonald's. O'Bryant still remembers the order — he even asked for an extra toy for Tyliyah. They turned toward home. The day had started well.
Meanwhile, miles from the shopping, 1,000 meters from O'Bryant's house, Turner and his sister exited the Food Mart O'Bryant had visited earlier that morning. Turner's family didn't respond to interview requests for the story, but while Turner had been convicted five years earlier for a juvenile sex offense, there's nothing on his record in the following years. With his family living across the street from the store, Turner took his 17-year-old sister, Deandra Jackson, and his 15-year-old brother, Paul Jackson, over for a quick snack. Deandra babbled on her phone, chattering with her boyfriend.
A man walked by wearing blue Dickies, a dark shirt, and red and black Jordans. He turned. According to the police report, the man heard something — something Deandra had said, lost somewhere in that phone conversation with her boyfriend. "What did you say?"
Turner looked at him. "She wasn't talking to you, man." The man moved closer and repeated his question, and Turner repeated his answer and stepped toward him.
The man's hair was cropped short. His sclera were red. There was a single lead-colored drop under one eye. Apparently no one knew who he was. Staring at Turner, he introduced himself. C-Note.
"If I catch y'all on the street, you're mine, bitch," he said.
Turner responded: "I'm right here, ain't I?"
According to Paul, who later related the story to detectives, Turner then put his fists under his chin, while his mother, Yvette, alerted by the yelling, ran out of the house and planted herself between them. An uncle, Uncle Junior, followed, bellowing at the two men to stop. Turner didn't listen. He slid past his mother, placing himself in front of the man. C-Note pulled a gun from his waistband. "It was black," Paul later said. "An automatic."
The first shots missed Turner, lacerating Deandra's thigh. The final shot went through Turner's teeth and lodged in the back of his neck. He stumbled a few feet, twisting to the entrance of the driveway, and fell. Purple blood seeped from his mouth. Two minutes later, minutes of screaming and sprinting, Turner dragged himself up, struggling to reach his porch. C-Note saw, and sent five more bullets at him. Some hit. Turner collapsed. C-Note then pushed a bystander off his bike and rode off.
When a call came in to Crime Stoppers that morning, a voice said he or she had recognized the shooter. Roderick O'Bryant. Lived just a few blocks away. Because of the anonymous nature of the calls, O'Bryant says he still has no idea who would have put his name out there.
Police located the house, but O'Bryant hadn't yet returned. They waited. Soon he got back from his shopping, and they knocked, and he walked past a daughter watching her father being cuffed. As O'Bryant sat down in the cruiser, one officer peered in, looking over the suspect. "Why's he have a beard?" the officer asked the driver, who glanced back silently. O'Bryant's scruff stood out scraggly and unkempt. Days' growth.
As they secured him in the backseat, Newman got the attention of one of the officers. She pleaded with him. She told him where they'd been — Family Dollar, the post office, McDonald's. All while C-Note was back near the Food Mart, unleashing bullets through the crowd and into Turner's neck. The officer turned and said, "Well, my goodness; for you to have been back here, you must have been Superwoman."
Neighbors were questioned, but no one, including the man who vomited upon witnessing the shooting, said he or she knew the name C-Note. No one said they recognized the shooter. The police searched the premises and the car with Newman's permission but turned up neither weapon nor bicycle, only a pair of Jordans.
O'Bryant's questioning at the station was short, rote. Thirty minutes of protocol. The 29-year-old appeared frustrated — his daughter had just been left sobbing in the wind — but he managed to maintain his composure. And he'd laid the handful of the day's receipts on the table next to him: a paper trail detailing how he'd spent his morning. Proof, or as close as he could provide, that he couldn't have been C-Note.
According to Shelton Sparks, O'Bryant's lawyer, the detectives later tossed the receipts as immaterial. They apparently believed that since the receipts were time-stamped after the shooting, their relevance was minimal.
Simultaneously, Turner's family was called in, with Deandra having been treated for her wound and given sufficient Vicodin for the pain. There was, however, no interview with Uncle Junior. One of the key witnesses in the murder, according to Sparks, was ignored. "Seems like they didn't want anyone that could change the story," Sparks later said. "Didn't want to risk the description they already had."
Investigators presented Yvette and Deandra with a "six-pack," a slip of paper containing six head shots matching the physical descriptors of the suspect in question. The method, in which all photos are displayed simultaneously, has rapidly fallen out of use in Texas — Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have opted for the more accurate sequential spread, in which photos are displayed one at a time. Houston, though, hasn't yet mandated such a shift.
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."
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.
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.
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."
But you can only fight so far. Because even as O'Bryant stands free, even as he lies in his bed and remembers that his record has been expunged and that his family is nearby, there's nothing he can do to reclaim the things gone. Tyliyah's with her mother. His job's with someone else.
And any possible restitution from the county went up in smoke when they found him not guilty.
There was no evidence fabricated. No wrongful imprisonment afterward. O'Bryant has suffered more for a crime he didn't commit than for the ones he did. But there's nothing that could offer grounds for suit.
And when O'Bryant recalls the people and holidays and opportunities lost, he realizes that's just how it will stay. All because of a man who looked like him, but wasn't.
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