In Search of Lost Time

By 1995, Robert Conran, better known to Houston clubbers as Reilly, felt like he had outgrown Houston's music scene. Los Mortales -- the self-described "romantic Latin metal" band that he fronted -- had broken up, and he wanted to take his big voice and flamenco dance steps to the bright lights of the Bat City, so he hopped on his ten-speed and pedaled away from the bayou and into a nightmare that even Kafka might have rejected as unrealistic.

Within months of his move, he was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence of an armed robbery that he swears even now, seven years later, he did not commit. Nor was Conran's parole last year the cause for celebration it should have been. All it meant for the 44-year-old London native, a resident alien of this country since the age of six, was a transfer from a Texas prison to one administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where he awaits deportation under get-tough legislation passed by Congress in 1996.

It gets worse. Six weeks ago, what is almost certainly a large tumor was discovered on one of Conran's kidneys. Doctors told him it needed to be cut out within two weeks. At press time, he was still waiting.

"It's been quite a ride," says Conran, calling from the INS jail in north Houston. "Over time, you get used to it, you know what I mean?"

Conran's nightmare began on March 2, 1996. He was then living in Austin's Zilker Park. Technically, he was homeless, but Conran stresses that he was no hobo. "I was just living a bohemian existence, working all the time and saving my money," he says. "I was camping in the woods and I had a car. I wasn't a bum or anything."

He was working as a day laborer, and on that fateful Saturday morning Conran clipped tree limbs from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. After work Conran returned to Zilker Park with a 12-pack of beer. He knocked back a few with his friend Frank Kincaid, and the two of them decided to go grab a bite before showering at Kincaid's house and then hitting the town.

Conran never made it to Kincaid's house. He had wanted Chinese, but as the men were driving down South Lamar, Kincaid suggested they stop at a Furr's cafeteria. They got their food without incident and sat down to eat. Kincaid told Conran that the cafeteria workers were acting strangely. They were staring at Conran, pointing at him. Conran told him he was crazy, but then he realized that Kincaid was right.

He thought there was a simple explanation. He describes his appearance that day as grungy; maybe, he suggested to Kincaid, they thought he was going to walk his check.

Conran was wrong. There was no simple explanation for what happened next.

When they reached the cafeteria lobby on their way out the door, two Austin cops were waiting for them with guns drawn. Cashier Eva Aguilar had identified Conran as the man who had robbed the Furr's at gunpoint the night before.

On the evening of March 1, a man described by witnesses as "homeless" and "a street beggar" robbed Furr's of $1,000. The man's apparent poverty was virtually all the witnesses agreed on. One, a Furr's customer, had him wearing a blue baseball cap. A second witness -- a cook -- said the man was wearing a red cap.

Aguilar, testifying through an interpreter at Conran's jury trial, was not so vague. "In my heart of hearts I know it was him," she testified. "I knew it when I walked in. My heart stopped." Aguilar remembered the robber wearing a green cap.

Although the imperfection of eyewitness testimony had been spotlighted by the robber's magic color-changing cap, the jury responded to Aguilar's unshakable confidence on the stand. Unfortunately for Conran, as UT law professor Guy Wellborn told the Austin Chronicle, in the eyewitness identification of strangers, "there's zero correlation between witness accuracy and witness confidence." Cross-racial identification is especially prone to error. The New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that all uncorroborated cross-racial eyewitness testimony must come with special judge's instructions to the jury, and other such cases are percolating through the courts from coast to coast.

Very few cases hinge on the testimony of one eyewitness, but Conran's did. Aguilar was all the state had. The money, gun and clothing Aguilar said he wore were never found. Nevertheless, Conran was convicted, which amazed not only him and his attorney but also the judge, Thomas Blackwell. "The judge thought it was a slam-dunk not guilty, and I did, too," Conran says. "I didn't think there was any way that you could find 12 people to agree that somebody would rob someplace and go back and have dinner there the next day, with no evidence other than this one woman saying that it was that person. I was naively believing that if you're not guilty there's no way you'll be found guilty."

Blackwell later told the Austin Chronicle that had Conran's trial come before his bench rather than a jury, he would have acquitted him. Two years ago, Blackwell also penned an amazing letter. "Considering the facts of this case and in the interest of justice, I sincerely recommend a TIME CUT for the defendant to time actually served; or in the alternative that he be granted an immediate release on parole," the judge wrote. "I have been a District Judge trying felony cases for more than 30 years, and this is the first time I have recommended a TIME CUT or immediate release."

Two years later, Conran's case came before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Since Conran is still a British subject, nothing short of a pardon would do him much good. The immigration law of 1996, adopted in response to the first World Trade Center attack, states that immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies must be deported. What's more, even though the crime that Conran was convicted of occurred several months before the law came into effect, its provisions are retroactive.

On February 25 of this year, Conran lost, ten votes to eight. He was paroled, not pardoned. He was released from TDCJ's Segovia Unit in Edinburg into the custody of the INS.

Three months into his stay, he was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pains. A surgeon removed some benign polyps, and informed Conran that a CAT scan revealed he had a mass on one of his kidneys that was almost certainly cancerous.

"My family didn't even know I was in the hospital," Conran says. "The only way I could discuss this with my family was to go back to the jail. So that's what I did, and now by going back to jail it has set me back to square one.

"Now they're saying that I've been scheduled, but God knows they lie," he says. "They'll tell you anything just to get you off their back, because my family is aggressively trying to get something done."

The INS cites security risks as the reason they won't tell him when his surgery will take place. "They say that I might get my homeboys to come and bust me out of the hospital," Conran says bitterly.

Paddy Burwell, one of Conran's supporters on the parole board, has persuaded the Houston law firm of Bennett & Secrest to take up his cause pro bono. Conran hopes to eventually win a pardon on a federal writ of habeas corpus. For now, though, he's more worried about staying alive. "The lawyer got my information and then he went on vacation, and I haven't heard from him," Conran says. "Now I'm just waiting to get treated for this…cancer that they say I've got."

In a recent letter to Racket, Conran revealed that he is reading the third book of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and described himself as a "talented, self-indulgent hellion." "But I have never robbed anyone," he wrote. "I just don't believe in it."

His friend Steve Baker agrees. Baker is the general manager at Mars Music here in Houston and played guitar for Los Mortales. He says he was shocked when Conran was arrested for armed robbery. "I wouldn't be shocked if he got arrested, for being drunk or something," he laughs. "But armed robbery? No, I never heard of anything like that. Honestly, I'm really losing faith in our justice system. It's amazing to me when a judge writes something like that letter and nothing happens. When he wrote that letter, I thought, 'Man, this'll clear him out, and he'll be out of there in no time.' "

But there he still sits, defiant but fearful. "Prison has not broken me; far from it," he wrote. "I'm stronger, wiser and ready to rock like never before. All I need to do is stay alive and I'll get it going on."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax