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When Civil Rights and Sloppy Policing Clash, an Innocent Man Can Lose Everything

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Roderick O'Bryant is holding his mother's hand. He's 31 years old, and his tie is loose around his neck, and his scratchy beard looks the same as the day he was accused of murdering 19-year-old Dequarusis Turner on Dec. 21, 2010. He's recounting everything he's been through over the past 30 months, detailed in this week's cover story. He's sharing the tale of how a man found innocent of a felony charge can still manage to lose those things he held closest, all because of a series of failures as preventable as they were obvious.

As O'Bryant recounts the months he spent in prison, the years he spent fighting the charge, his lawyer listens silently alongside. Shelton Sparks is relatively new to the case. His presence came after O'Bryant's arrest, and after the Houston Police Department had begun forming a case against his client based solely on shoddy, slippery evidence.

"I met with O'Bryant's mother seven months into it," Sparks says, his black fedora and French cuffs completing his outfit. "Getting him out of prison was the first thing -- that took the pressure off us."

After finding a bail bond company willing to support O'Bryant's release, Sparks began working toward, as he said, "creating the reasonable doubt" that would eventually lead jurors to find O'Bryant not guilty. Because this wasn't simply a murder case for Sparks. Yes, this relationship has remained professional -- but there was something more. Sitting underneath posters of Tuscaloosa's Bloody Sunday, surrounded by photos of Obama and assorted Civil Rights Era figures, there's an inescapable racial component behind the decor. And when the subject of race comes into the case of O'Bryant, who is black, a ripple of tension arises. Racial profile. Racial assumption. That's the shadow behind all of this.

Of course, it can't be proven. But it hangs, as O'Bryant recounts the evidence forgotten, as his mother details all the suffering she endured. O'Bryant was innocent. His case, though, is as scathing a rebuke to our city's police department as anything in recent memory.

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