Home Again

The first people to greet Roy Criner when he emerged from the Montgomery County Jail were the camera crews, swarming like gnats around the door of the squad car that had escorted him from the rear gate. Slowly he made his way to the makeshift podium for a brief statement. His mother, Jackie, milled at the back of the pack, craning her neck for a view like a gawker watching movie stars arrive at the Oscars. Finally some relatives called her to the forefront, and she and her son embraced. He moved a few steps and reunited with his father, Donald, before stepping up to the mike.

I wasn't really listening to his remarks. Instead, I watched the cluster of people behind him whose labor had resulted in his freedom after a decade in prison for a crime he didn't commit: his parents, aunt and uncle Brenda and Jacques Verron, attorneys Mike Charlton and Jim Cooper and other family members. Next to me on the periphery was Montgomery County Constable Travis Bishop, whose work proved instrumental in getting Roy out. The moment was as gratifying as we all had known it would be; it was, by itself, enough.

For a guy who had been robbed of ten years by the justice system and had stared at the sword of Damocles for an additional four, Roy seemed remarkably composed. The New Caney logger tolerated stupid questions from the media horde with the patience reserved for toddlers, despite his desire to get the hell away from the jail as quickly as possible. I wondered if he was nervous that the law would suddenly appear and tell him sorry, we've changed our minds, you've got to go back.

I wouldn't have blamed him. It had happened before, several times, starting in 1992, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reinstated his rape conviction in the brutal 1986 assault and murder of 16-year-old Deanna Ogg. That conviction had been overturned by an appellate court for lack of evidence. Roy had thought his ordeal had ended, but it was a long way from over. The judges in Austin reversed the decision.

It happened again in 1997, when the Court of Criminal Appeals once more subverted justice by denying Roy a new trial after DNA tests proved that the semen found in the victim wasn't his. Rejecting District Judge Michael Mayes's call for a new trial, the court ruled that the DNA evidence didn't prove Roy's innocence. Judge Sharon Keller stated that because the victim was known to be promiscuous, she could have had sex with someone well before the murder. Keller argued that Roy then raped and killed her, and either failed to ejaculate or wore a condom.

Keller expounded on her theory to PBS Frontline producer Ofra Bikel. If the DNA test had come up positive, she said, it would have meant something. A negative result, on the other hand, didn't mean anything.

That ruling by Keller marked the beginning of the final push to clear Roy's name, a group effort that would take three years. Tipped by a tiny story in the local daily, the Houston Press spent several months examining the case (see "Hard Time," by Bob Burtman, September 10, 1998). The investigation revealed numerous major flaws in the state's case and uncovered a piece of evidence that would later prove pivotal: a cigarette butt.

It didn't seem like much at first glance; just a line on a police report detailing the items collected at the crime scene. There was no description of the butt, and no mention of it in any subsequent police filings. At trial, prosecutor David Walker told Roy's attorney he didn't know where the butt was being kept, and the subject was dropped until the Press inquiry eight years later. Walker told the Press he didn't think the butt had any importance.

He was wrong. District Attorney Mike McDougal denied access to the evidence, but Press intern Toby Coleman spotted it in a crime scene photograph, a long brown stub lying about three feet from the body. The victim, we learned, smoked a brand with a white filter. Roy didn't smoke. Toby and I both felt the cigarette had been smoked by the killer, and we stumped to have it tested. It would take another year and a half to get it done.

The Frontline broadcast in January elevated the case to national attention and generated the collective outrage and public pressure that would ultimately force the state to issue its pardon. Attorney Barry Scheck arranged funding for critical DNA tests on the cigarette butt. (The lab found a match between the semen in Ogg's body and DNA in the filter, which shot down the state's theory of consensual sex before the murder.) Travis Bishop and investigator Craig Lawson worked the case from the law enforcement side, uncovering new evidence that pointed away from Roy.

And Roy's family continued knocking on any door they could find, looking for allies, pleading his case to whomever would listen. They'd been doing it for ten years, before anyone outside Montgomery County had ever heard of Roy Criner, when most of those who knew the name were convinced of his guilt. It finally paid off.

The morning of Roy's release began with the same surreal overtones that characterized the case from the beginning. At 8:30 a.m., Roy entered a Montgomery County courtroom in leg irons, handcuffs and prison-issue stripes, enraging the throng of relatives gathered for the occasion. But Roy seemed not to mind the indignity, transforming the short steps necessitated by his chains into a freedom dance, his face split by a blissful smile. It was the first time I'd seen his face register anything but pain.

Judge Mayes, who 17 days earlier had declined to set bond and release Roy -- despite signing a recommendation for his pardon -- launched into a bizarre soliloquy that stunned those in the courtroom. Comparing Roy to others who had triumphed over adversity through strength of character and will, Mayes invoked the Bible, the Magna Carta, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Albert Einstein and Ludwig Von Beethoven.

The only legend he failed to mention, joked Jim Cooper later, would have provided the best opportunity of all. "Free at last, free at last..."

At least Mayes didn't repeat his theme from the previous hearing: that the lesson to be learned from Roy's case is that the system works, if slowly. That would come the next day from Attorney General John Cornyn, interviewed on KPRC radio. The same John Cornyn who wrote an op-ed piece in February declaring that although other states may have convicted and executed innocent people, we have not, because "this is Texas."

The purpose of the hearing was to revisit the bond request, which Mayes had agreed to do after he returned from a two-week "business trip." This time, the judge came through -- the day after the Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended a pardon and Governor George Bush agreed to sign it. Not the gustiest move, given the inevitability of Roy's exoneration, but Mayes tried to spin it as bold and decisive. Justice means taking action, he said, or something similar, and we're going to do just that. Thanks, Judge.

It was hard not to feel anger at Mayes for his self-serving, overblown prattle. Or at D.A. McDougal and his assistant Gail McConnell, who acted appropriately sympathetic at the hearing -- after the judge's ruling, McConnell gave Jackie Criner a big hug. They still defend their actions, in denial that their continual efforts to keep Roy imprisoned took an additional three years from his life. I was reminded of the Polish peasants interviewed in the Holocaust film Shoah, who 40 years later still didn't understand that their collaborations with the Nazis had been anything but justified. It could happen again, I thought then, and think now.

About the only player on the wrong side in the Criner saga who had the sense to lay low and keep her mouth shut was Sharon Keller. Her 1997 opinion dismissing the DNA evidence brought national embarrassment and ridicule on the state's highest criminal court. Her Kafkaesque comments on Frontline furthered her dubious reputation. Yet she has never apologized, or admitted she made a mistake. And the citizens of Texas are about to elect Keller to the influential presiding-judge position, where her twisted view of the law will no doubt be used again and again to deny innocent people a shot at a new trial.

Those are wearying thoughts, and I feel guilty for allowing them to distract from Roy's (literal) day in the sun and the satisfaction of having played a role in his release. But it's been that kind of emotional roller-coaster for two and a half years: believing first that justice would prevail, then having hope dim, only to be resurrected again. To have one's most frustrating professional experience instantly transform into the most satisfying. In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the bitter from the sweet.

Of course, that mixed bag is nothing compared to what Roy and his family went through. After Mayes adjourned the hearing, Jackie walked unsteadily down the hallway past the gaggle of cameras, tears streaming down her face, saying, "He's coming home, he's coming home." Even though the morning was only the final step in a process that could no longer be reversed, she hadn't allowed herself to believe it was actually going to happen until the judge pounded the gavel.

Roy summed it up perfectly for the clueless reporter who asked how it felt to be free. "I can't even begin to tell you, ma'am," he said.

When I first met the Criner family at the home of Jackie's sister, none of us knew quite what to think. They had no reason to trust the media, which had not been gracious to Roy when he'd been arrested, charged, tried and convicted. I remember Jackie's air of desperation, her touching gratitude that anyone might be interested in her son's case. Now she's handling interviews on national television like an old pro.

I still haven't talked to Roy. I got to shake his hand as he walked to the van that would take him back home. Next week, when he has had a chance to be with family and away from the craziness, I'll give him a call and see if maybe I can pay him a visit and take him out for a burger.

It would be an honor.

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