Jimmy's Justice

The headlights a block behind Bud "Jimmy" Sawyer Jr. flashed from dim to bright to dim to bright again. At 12:40 in the morning, November 17, 1992, Jimmy was looking to buy crack cocaine, a plentiful commodity in his northeast Houston neighborhood where gunshots could be heard even before sunset. Jimmy had turned at the intersection of Parker Road and Shady Lane where dealers usually loitered in a convenience store parking lot and in the park across the road.

The area was deserted.

Might as well head home, Jimmy thought. As he continued north on Shady Lane in his blue Chevy S-10 pickup, he saw the lights flickering behind him. Although it was the only other car on the road, Jimmy didn't think anyone was trying to get his attention, not until the small Geo Metro sped up next to him and tapped its horn a few times.

Jimmy pulled over to the right side of the road. The Metro stopped on the left, about eight feet away. At first in the dim lighting, he could not make out the three occupants of the car. Then he recognized the driver, Lee Varn Rayford. Rayford had sold him crack cocaine several times. In fact, he had sold Jimmy a rock some two hours earlier in the Happy Land Food Store parking lot.

Rayford asked if Jimmy had money. Jimmy pulled a $20 bill from his shirt pocket and waved it.

"Come on over here," Rayford said. "I got something for you then."

Jimmy walked over to the passenger side of the Metro. He didn't know the man in the front passenger seat or the one in the back. Jimmy rested against the window frame and waited.

Then Rayford leaned across the man in the passenger seat and pointed a gun inches from Jimmy's face. The gun was so close that it blurred in his vision. Jimmy stepped back and recognized it as a .22-caliber derringer pistol, small enough to fit in a person's palm.

"Give me your wallet," Rayford shouted.

"No, please don't do this," Jimmy said. "You know me."

The pistol was already cocked.

Jimmy reached toward his wallet in his back right pocket, but instead pulled a chrome .38-caliber pistol from his right front pocket, its handle concealed by his T-shirt. He fired once at Rayford, who sat still pointing the derringer. Jimmy shot him again. The other two men crouched toward the floor. Jimmy thought they were going for a gun, so he shot twice at the front passenger and once at the man in the backseat. As Rayford opened his car door, Jimmy fled in his truck, afraid they were coming after him.

Only the the backseat passenger, Eric Alonzo Williams, survived. Almost a year later, as the state's star witness, Williams told a jury that Jimmy Sawyer, high on cocaine, with his eyes glazed and bloodshot, had come out of his truck with that chrome gun in his hand, angry at Rayford for selling him bad crack. Jimmy, who is white, had shouted, "I'm going to kill you black motherfuckers," before opening fire, Williams said.

Jimmy testified that he shot in self-defense, sure that he was going to be robbed and killed. But police found no weapons at the crime scene. Jimmy Sawyer was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In the courtroom, his family sat stunned by the verdict. Tears escaped from Jimmy's eyes. His mother, Rachel, could not understand how the jury had believed Williams, a drug dealer with a lengthy criminal history. As they led Jimmy away, Rachel vowed not to let him down. She would find a way to prove him right.

Of all of Rachel Wondrak Moore's children, Jimmy seemed one of the least likely to get into trouble. The second of eight kids, he always protected his brothers and sisters. No one picked a fight with one of Jimmy's siblings without eventually hearing from Jimmy.

Rachel's kids were raised with guns in the house. Her second husband and Jimmy's stepdad, George P. Wondrak, served as an HPD officer. At night he moonlighted as a security officer and she went with him, letting him sleep in the car as she kept watch. Later, Rachel took security jobs herself.

Rachel had grown up in the Valley in a family of migrant workers who traveled north to Michigan during the summers to pick cherries and strawberries. To fit in, they changed their Hispanic names to Anglo ones. Raquel became Rachel.

During the summer when she was 13, Rachel met Buddy Sawyer, who wrote to her after she returned to Texas. Before Buddy left for the army, he came by Houston to drop off an engagement ring. Days after he returned from Korea in 1956, they married. She worked in a downtown cafe and he at a nearby truck stop. They had four children and became friends with a cop named George who patrolled that area. When Buddy and Rachel split, Rachel married George and had four more children.

Back then, the family lived on Duff Lane in northeast Houston, near what would become the Hardy Toll Road. Like most 12-year-old kids, Jimmy wanted a horse really badly. The difference between Jimmy and most kids, though, is that his mother actually bought him one. George rented the vacant corner lot and built a horse stable. They bought another horse and a little donkey named Ginger for Jimmy's sister Rachel, nicknamed Giggs.

The family also kept chickens, goats, rabbits, poodles, cats, lizards, parakeets and canaries, along with Giggs's pet spider monkey.

Rachel didn't own a car big enough to transport all her children to Catholic school, Boy Scouts and Brownies, so George bought his wife a full-length yellow school bus. Later, she also worked as a bus driver.

As he grew up, Jimmy spent the weekends with his father, Buddy Sr., at his diesel truck repair shop. When George retired from HPD, he moved the family to his hometown, San Antonio. But Jimmy missed his father. Two days before his 18th birthday, Jimmy left San Antonio on a motorcycle and went to live and work with his dad. He worked for him ever since, until the day he was arrested.

In 1992 Jimmy Sawyer started dabbling in crack cocaine at age 32. Although he had seen how wasted and hollow his brothers Jesse and George had grown from their crack addictions, Jimmy did it anyway. The pressure of trying to support his family had gotten to him. Sometimes the smallest mishap caused him to lose his temper with his wife. Becky says during the first four or five years of marriage, her husband beat her. Jimmy said he'd never hurt such a tiny woman. But whatever the problem, crack calmed him down a bit. It was something to do. It made him feel numb.

Jimmy owned a Harley. His mother had bought him his first bike when he was 16, a red and black Honda 100. His brothers and even his tomboy sister Giggs, who would later join the army, rode motorcycles.

Loving cycles led to loving Becky. Her father was a biker too, and he and Jimmy frequented the same bar. Becky didn't want to rush into marriage right away, but she became pregnant. After they married, Becky asked Jimmy to quit messing with Harleys so much. But Jimmy joined a gang called the Conquistadors. His best friend belonged to the rival Banditos.

Becky, now remarried, says she knew Jimmy did drugs, but she thought it was only every other weekend. She didn't know he smoked crack several times a week. She can't remember how long Jimmy did it; she tries hard to forget that stuff. Maybe it was several years. But Jimmy says he started smoking crack only about three months before the shooting. One day as he got into his truck at Happy Land Food Store, Rayford, a familiar figure around the neighborhood, tried to sell him some crack.

"No thanks," Jimmy said.

Rayford persisted, dropping a rock into the car. "This one's free," he said. "Try it and tell me what you think."

After that, Jimmy bought from Rayford several times. The last time he purchased crack was the night of the shooting. Rayford offered a $20 rock to Jimmy, who opened his wallet and asked if Rayford had change for a $100 bill. Rayford pulled out a thick wad of cash, then changed his mind and pocketed it. He seemed rushed.

"Nah. Just give me two of them $10 food stamps," he said, pointing at Jimmy's wallet, which also contained four $100 bills.

Later that night, Jimmy returned to Happy Land to find no one there. He often stopped there after work for groceries; he liked the Vietnamese immigrant family that ran the store. But now the store's name, with a yellow happy face over the H, seemed a misnomer. Ever since the Parker Square apartments, a complex of 175 units, went up down the street, the crime rate had gone up noticeably.

Jimmy kept two large dogs, one tied at each side of the house, but he still couldn't sleep at night. He borrowed a chrome pistol from a friend and started to carry it with him everywhere. He offered to teach his wife how to use it, but Becky would have nothing to do with it. Now, she doesn't even remember he ever had a gun.

"We never had guns in the house before," she says, though Jimmy testified at trial that he kept a 12-gauge shotgun, a .22-caliber rifle and a broken deer rifle in the house.

One day, about a month before the shooting, Jimmy pulled into the Happy Land parking lot to find a Latino man lying on his back, arms outstretched. Jimmy knelt down by the man, who tried to speak but could not. The man was bleeding beneath his armpits from gunshot wounds. The store clerk had already called 911, and Jimmy told the man that help was coming. The man was clean-cut and neatly dressed. He drove a blue Ford truck topped by a CB antenna; probably a foreman or job-site supervisor, Jimmy guessed. As Jimmy looked him in the eyes, tears streamed from the corners of the wounded man's eyes. Almost simultaneously, a police car and an ambulance pulled into the parking lot.

Jose Moctezuma, 48, had stopped to use the pay phone when he got caught in cross fire. Paramedics loaded him into the ambulance, which traveled just a block or two before it turned off its flashing lights.

A month later an ambulance roared down Shady Lane again to find Mary Lee Rayford wailing over her son's body. Witnesses described a Chevy truck leaving the scene. Rayford's girlfriend, Fefin Vaughns, told police the truck belonged to a white man who lived around the corner. She and Rayford had driven to his house once to borrow tools.

Armando Bustamante Jr., a high school student, said he heard an exchange of loud voices shortly before gunfire:

"You screwed me over!" one voice said.

"No, here it is right here," the other responded.

He told officers he saw two men stagger across the street, one far behind the other.

HPD homicide cops discovered the driver of the truck had no criminal record. They found that strange.

"Detectives … were suspicious as to how a person, who was supposed to be so heavy into crack and guns that he would kill two dope dealers, would not have a prior record," the police report reads. "The detectives wondered if Sawyer might have a record under an alias."

But there were no previous arrests. In high school, Jimmy once shot the finger at a security guard, for which the furious guard took Jimmy down to the station. The judge laughed and dismissed the charges.

Scared that Rayford would shoot up his house, Jimmy didn't go to police after the shooting, but gathered his family and took them to his father-in-law's. Leaving his gun there, he drove back to the scene. When he arrived, a crowd of 30 people lingered around just one police car. He was afraid of that crowd, afraid that those people from the blond-bricked apartments were friends of Rayford's and that one patrol car could not protect him from them.

He didn't tell Becky much. And she didn't ask. As usual, he worked at his father's truck shop the next day. HPD staked out his house.

Close to 9 p.m., a Chevy pickup parked in Jimmy's driveway. The detectives ordered the young driver to keep his hands high. It was Michael Wondrak, Jimmy's youngest brother, with his girlfriend in the car. Michael admitted he had a .38-caliber revolver in the truck behind his seat. Detectives also confiscated a bag of marijuana. He had come to the house to confront his brother George, whom his mother suspected of stealing $100 from her purse.

Using Michael's truck as bait, Sergeant Robert E. King kept Michael and his girlfriend in his police car and waited. Half an hour later, Jimmy pulled into the driveway in his father's red Toyota pickup. A sawed-off shotgun rested on the floor of the truck. Thinking Michael was home, he knocked on the back door while relieving himself off the steps.

Then the officers scared the shit out of him, literally. Jimmy defecated in his pants as police shouted for him to put his hands up. Jimmy acted as if he didn't know what murders the officers were talking about as they arrested him.

Rachel was in the hospital with an IV in her arm, recovering from a deer-hunting accident, when some of her kids told her Jimmy had been arrested for a double murder. She thought they were kidding. Two of her other sons, Jesse and George, had seen the inside of jail cells a few times, but not Jimmy. Not Jimmy, the family man.

Jimmy was confident that a jury would see he had defended himself against an attempt on his life. He had no doubt that he would otherwise be dead, like that Latino man outside Happy Land. He had thought of that man when the derringer was in his face. He thought he would never see his wife and three kids again.

Even now, that man haunts him. "It still turns my stomach just to think of that to this day. I have a feeling that poor man had a wife and children somewhere, and if he could have spoken, he probably would have wanted me to tell his family that he loved them."

During the 1993 trial, the state argued that Jimmy shot three unarmed people after a drug deal gone bad. Rayford had died wearing three pairs of underwear, common apparel for drug dealers, who often hide dope between the layers. Toxicology reports revealed high levels of cocaine in his bloodstream. George Bernard Smith, the 18-year-old who died in the passenger seat, had a smaller amount in his urine. Eric Williams testified that he, Rayford and Smith sold drugs regularly and that Rayford had drugs to sell that night. And he testified that usually one was armed when selling drugs. But he insisted that they had no gun that night.

The three men had police records, but Assistant District Attorney Steve Baldassano urged the jury to consider that a life was a life, and life was not worth less when it belonged to a drug dealer. The two dead men had been shot in the back, and Williams in the right buttock. They had been fleeing when they were shot, Baldassano said. Spent shells were found inside the car, indicating that Jimmy had shot them at close range.

Baldassano called HPD lab analysts to testify that scientific tests revealed that the dead men had gunpowder residue on their palms. It indicated that they had held their hands up in defensive postures as they were shot.

On cross-examination, the chief toxicologist who performed the tests said that someone could also collect residue on his palms from handling weapons.

But if the men had held their hands up, wouldn't their jacket sleeves also contain gun powder residue? The jackets tested negative. A lab chemist told the jury it was possible for someone to get residue on his hands and not his clothing if he held his hands up, blocking the fall of the powder.

Jimmy testified that George Smith reached for a weapon. But Smith had residue on his hands. And that meant they were in the line of fire. And therefore Jimmy did not tell the truth, Baldassano argued.

Rachel was stunned by the guilty verdict and sentence in the three-day trial. Even now, eight years later, she can't talk about the sentencing without crying. And Rachel is a stoic woman who does not cry easily.

"I can't even think about that," she says, sniffling. "It just tore the family up. I mean we're a really close family. I got eight kids, and every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, everybody comes to my house. And now there's one missing. I don't know. It just torn the family apart, it's so terrible."

The scenario of the crime did not make sense to her. No drugs, only $42.12 and the food stamps were found on the two men, even though Williams testified that Rayford had sold drugs that night. And if drugs had vanished from the scene, a gun could too, she reasons. Rayford and Williams had staggered to the Parker Square apartments where Rayford died on the steps of a porch. Paramedics found Williams by the pool with friends. He had time to get rid of the evidence, Rachel speculates.

"Who in their right minds would have just left money and drugs and guns and everything lying around, especially in that part of town? How can those boys be out there selling drugs and don't have any money or guns?" she says.

One person the jury didn't hear from was Rayford's girlfriend, Fefin Vaughns, who worked as a prison guard. She told officers that Rayford had been arrested for allegedly robbing a Hispanic man in the neighborhood on Halloween. Rayford had reportedly fled in her blue Metro.

Smith, she also told them, was supposedly hiding from the law because he had supplied a Mac-10 firearm to an associate who allegedly killed a Hispanic man as he spoke on the pay phone outside the Happy Land store.

As standard procedure for life and death sentences, Jimmy received an automatic appeal and a court-appointed appellate lawyer. The appeal was denied. A writ of habeas corpus, a motion claiming wrongful imprisonment, was also dismissed because Jimmy filed it as the first appeal made its way through the justice system, and it's against the rules to file both at the same time.

When Jimmy was transferred to the Darrington unit in Rosharon, he spent his time in the law library, reading and talking to jailhouse lawyers, inmates who had taken paralegal courses through the mail. For six months Jimmy worked on his second writ alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued that his trial lawyer, Joe Edwin Naron, never filed a motion for discovery and did not read Williams's statements until he received a five-minute break during the trial to review them.

Naron calls Jimmy's claims "absolutely ridiculous" and the case against him "overwhelming." He says he did not file a discovery motion because he had access to everything. He says he read the statements before the trial.

Rachel didn't know how to help her son. He kept repeating that Rayford had a gun. He had a gun. So she decided to post flyers in Jimmy's old neighborhood. They offered a "$5,000 reward" for information leading to the recovery of Rayford's gun, although the family did not have the money or intend to pay it. Every week family members stapled flyers to telephone poles and taped them inside stores. In June 1995, 21 months after the trial, Sidney Richardson saw a flyer in Happy Land. He called Rachel.

Richardson, who received no reward money, told her that he had been on his way to Happy Land for cigarettes when he heard four or five gunshots. As he turned onto Shady Lane, a small two-door hatchback faced him with its lights on and driver's-side door open. Two black men ran across the street, one helping the other. Richardson got out of his car and saw a man slumped over in the passenger seat. Then he approached the two other men who had stopped on a porch. One leaned over the other, who lay face down on the concrete. Richardson asked what was going on. One man stood up, swung around and pointed a small derringer pistol.

"Get the fuck out of here," the man said.

Richardson was pretty sure the gun was a derringer. He drove to Stop N Go to buy his smokes. Then he went home and never told anyone but his wife about it. They lived in the area and didn't want any trouble.

But now he had moved and he thought it was the right thing to tell someone about it. Rachel met with Richardson and took him to a notary public where he wrote an affidavit. At the last minute, Jimmy attached the affidavit to his second writ. He felt more hopeful than he had ever been.

When Jimmy's youngest child, Marsha, turned one, Becky brought a cupcake garnished with candle to Harris County Jail so that Jimmy could sing "Happy Birthday" to his daughter through the glass. At New Year's, she brought bubbles.

After Jimmy was moved to Darrington, his mother and father took turns visiting him on the weekends. Jimmy gets three contact visits and one regular visit a month. But Rachel won't leave her home in Shepherd to visit because she can't bear to see her son through glass. The room is crowded and noisy, the little holes hard to speak through and the conversation hard to hear.

She is round-faced and wide-eyed with a forthright nose. Now at 61, Rachel's health is not so good anymore.

"I hate to make over a 200-mile trip to go through that," she says. "And then you can see the pain in his face. You can't touch him or talk to him or give him a hug or anything. It's too painful to look at him like that."

When he first arrived at Darrington, Jimmy says, other prisoners threatened to jump him with their homeboys if he didn't buy them cookies, but they didn't follow through on the threats. He was transferred to work in the kitchen, and people left him alone.

But his mother tells a different version of the story. The way Rachel remembers it, those guys threatened to kill Jimmy with a hoe. And they ripped his commissary goods out of his hands.

"I called the warden and the chaplain," she says. "I was screaming out of my mind. He had never been with people like that. Well, hours later, they changed his job and put him in the kitchen. He saw them in the chow line and they were wondering how he got so lucky."

Making phone calls for her son wasn't enough for Rachel, so she became a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison guard.

"Knowing Jimmy had to be in there all this time, I went and got a job … 'cause I wanted to see what really goes on back there," she says.

Jimmy didn't want her in that line of work. He knew how inmates behaved, and they were nasty. They sat masturbating while staring at the female guards.

"And I could see them doing that, staring at my mom. I was worried about my mom," he says.

For a year Rachel worked the night shift at the Stiles unit in Beaumont. For a year she endured sexual harassment, not from the prisoners, but from a co-worker. While she was still learning the ropes, that guard took her to the roof, cornered her and tried to remove her pants.

"This guy thought he was God's gift to women. No woman was going to say no to him. That's when we had a problem," she says.

After her refusal, that guard slighted Rachel at every opportunity, she says. He wouldn't let her on breaks; he made snide comments and stared. Rachel says she complained to a superior and that same night, the guard jumped her in the parking lot. Another co-worker sitting in a car witnessed the assault. Rachel filed a formal complaint with headquarters. Officials promised to transfer the guard, but nothing changed.

Rachel didn't feel sorry for herself, though, but for the inmates. "I thought people were supposed to be rehabilitated and helped. How can they expect them to be rehabilitated and do anything good when they make it worse in there for them?"

A guard who didn't like a certain inmate could order him to strip naked, rip his cell apart and plant something that would send the inmate to solitary confinement for 15 days. Just like that. Rachel says she once was working the floor when a desperately ill inmate called for help from his cell. He couldn't even lift his head. But the guard working picket, who controlled the doors and the phones, said, "As long as the motherfucker can move his mouth, he's not going anywhere."

In two days that inmate died, she says.

Rachel can tell stories more horrendous than that, but she doesn't want to talk about them now. Not while Jimmy's still in there. If she says something negative about the prison system, the system might take it out on Jimmy. Anything can happen in that world.

She just shakes her head. "No one should have to go through that."

Without a lawyer, Jimmy filed his second writ improperly, and it was denied. Again, the family pooled money to hire another attorney, Dick DeGuerin, and associate Matt Hennessy. They filed a third writ, helping Richardson properly write another affidavit.

Writs of habeas corpus first pass through the court that conducted the trial. Jan Krocker had been elected in 1994 as judge of the 184th District Court. She granted Jimmy a hearing in 1997.

Sidney Richardson took the stand. Eric Williams was also brought in from prison where he was serving a 30-year sentence for auto theft, his third felony. Williams shivered so much that Krocker asked a bailiff to bring him a jacket. He tried to take the fifth. He did not want to testify, he said, until he had read his previous testimony.

The hearing spanned several months. In the end, Judge Krocker recommended a new trial. She ruled that Sidney Richardson, who had been interviewed by HPD's Sergeant King, was a credible witness, and Eric Williams was not. She also noted that Jimmy had not had counsel to properly present his claims previously; she had not even noticed Richardson's original affidavit.

Jimmy had proved, she wrote, "by clear and convincing evidence that the newly discovered evidence is material and would probably cause a different result in another trial."

Judge Krocker sent her recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin. Hennessy assured Jimmy's family that he would come home soon.

Months passed. Hennessy received a terse notice in the mail. It denied relief based not on the new evidence -- or even any evidence -- but rather on the Criminal Code of Conduct, which prevents convicts from filing successive writs.

Technically Jimmy had already presented the new evidence in the second writ, which he wrote himself. So the later one was thrown out by the appellate court.

"Procedurally, Sawyer is not getting a new trial because he tried to help himself first," Hennessy says.

Out of legal options, Hennessy told Jimmy there was nothing else he could do for him. He explains that Jimmy's case is just one example of a system-wide failing. He had only one shot to present an innocence claim.

"What is happening these days is that procedural concerns are taking priority over substantive fact in determining whether people should have a new trial or not," he says. "The word often used by prosecutors, [is] 'technicalities.' We're talking [about] a technicality that works in the state's favor, so they call it the law. What this really is is a foolish technicality."

Prosecutor Baldassano seems puzzled as to why Jimmy deserves a new trial. "Every so often you get a case where you wondered who really knew what happened -- this one gave me no pause. It didn't seem like it was that wild or unusual a case. Basically he must have shot several times into the car."

Yet he concedes that had the victims been armed, that would have made a difference.

"Obviously if someone came by and took the guns away that's important, but I guess that's what the trial is for, to get anything out. They didn't say anything back then," he says.

As the prosecutor knows, they couldn't have said anything back then, because Richardson did not surface until two years after the trial.

Procedural concerns aside, the verdict would have been the same even with Richardson's testimony at the trial, argues Shirley Cornelius, who represented the state during the writ hearing.

Had Richardson been called by the defense, the state would have countered with the testimony of Armando Bustamante, the student who heard the loud voices arguing before the gunfire.

"And Armando just 'kills' Sid Richardson," Cornelius says. "Sid's story standing alone doesn't tell you anything about what happened in the car even if Eric Williams had the gun. It doesn't place the gun where [Jimmy] said it was."

And if those drug dealers had weapons, Baldassano points out, why did Jimmy escape unharmed? "This guy is so quick that even if several guns or two of those guns were pointed, he got his gun into shooting position and shot before either one could get a shot off. Maybe that happened. But you're pretty damn quick. You're there."

"I think about that a lot," Jimmy says during a visit. From behind the glass, he tries to maintain a cheerful countenance. He had expected to get hit, he says.

"I don't know if he was bluffing or if it was a loaded gun or empty. I didn't know he'd been shot, because when that first bullet got him, he didn't hardly lower his gun."

Buddy Sawyer Sr. works alone these days. Without Jimmy, he locks up the place when he leaves to get a part. His hands are rough as sandpaper, his nails irreversibly blackened. Little leaves his slit of a mouth.

In his narrow office hangs a framed drawing Jimmy did in prison. In colored pencils, it depicts an 18-wheeler parked in front of the red corrugated tin building in Galena Park that serves as Buddy's Truck Repair. The cracked glass over the drawing has been taped over. Jimmy was a good mechanic. "There was nothing I could not repair," he said in a letter.

At Darrington, Jimmy keeps his mouth shut and doesn't cause trouble. He attends Catholic services every Saturday and has never gotten in a fight. When he's not writing letters and drawing pictures for his children, he lifts weights. Rachel clips images out of magazines and newspapers to give him more ideas. His daughters, now 11 and eight, say with certainty that their father is innocent. But they don't know he had been smoking crack. Jimmy hasn't told them yet. Becky wishes he would.

In 1995 Rachel and Buddy attended Jimmy's GED graduation ceremony, where Jimmy introduced his mother to a friend, Charles Moore, who was serving time for drugs. Charles seemed lonely, and Rachel began to write him. Just as she fell in love with her first husband through letters, the same happened with her third. Though she had met Charles in person only a few times, three years ago she married him, this man half her age.

"I've seen them visit, and the sparks flew," Jimmy says. "She had sparkles in her eyes. She looked so happy. My brothers and sisters don't understand. They don't know like I do. I could see she's getting a little like she's young again."

Jimmy isn't eligible for parole until he serves 35 years. He will be 69 then. Even then, he doesn't think they'll grant it, not for a double murder. He says he's sorry he ever touched drugs. He's sorry those men died; he did not mean to kill them. But he's not sorry he carried a gun, or he'd be dead. "What would a Houston police officer do in this situation?" he wrote. "The answer is -- he would have done the same as I did."

Meanwhile, family members have written to numerous state and federal officials. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles wrote back outlining that Jimmy needed recommendations from HPD, the judge and the D.A. in order to be considered for clemency.

So Buddy Sr. made an appointment with Sergeant King, who didn't remember the case at first. "When you arrested my boy, he messed his pants," Buddy reminded him. He showed him Judge Krocker's recommendation for a new trial, and King said he would help. After talking to the D.A.'s office, he changed his mind. King declined to speak to the Houston Press.

"We have rules in life," says District Attorney Johnny Holmes. "You're supposed to comply with them. If I forget to file for office before the first Monday in January -- even though I might consider myself the best prosecutor in the nation -- I'm screwed. The rules are established for some logical reason, I suppose. And I don't take issue with those rules."

Cornelius says she does take issues with the rules, if they get in the way of innocence claims, but Jimmy isn't innocent. She calls the case an indefensible crime and tragic story.

"He had kids, family and a house….He's the perfect example of someone who had a solid life and what six months of crack can do to it."

Jimmy has maintained all along that he shot in self-defense. An independent witness stepped forward to confirm key portions of his story. A judge heard the new evidence and found it compelling enough to recommend a new trial. But under the law, that's not enough. Still, he believes he'll get out one day. His mother does too.

Until then, Rachel says, "I would trade places with him in a minute so he could come out and have a life."


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