Almost forty years ago, in June 1983, James Harry Reyos walked into the Seventieth District Court in Odessa to be put on trial for the brutal murder of a Catholic priest in a seedy motel room just a mile away. Reyos, a gay Native American with a couple of court-appointed lawyers, didn’t stand a chance. Though there wasn’t a shred of physical evidence connecting him to the bloody crime scene—and even though he had a paper trail proving his alibi that, at the time of the murder, he was 215 miles away in Roswell, New Mexico—he was found guilty and sent to prison.
Friday, March 24, Reyos walked into the same courtroom for an evidentiary hearing on whether or not he should be found legally “actually innocent.” This time he had two lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit that has helped exonerate 28 wrongfully convicted individuals, as well as three law students from Texas Tech University School of Law. A documentary film crew led by filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi was following him through the halls of the courthouse. And his witness list for the hearing included the Odessa chief of police, a retired local judge, and a former Texas Ranger. Sometimes the hearing had the feel of a church service, with witnesses testifying to an article of faith: Reyos is innocent. Other times the hearing felt like a course in Forensics 101: the more obvious suspects, witnesses said, were the three guys who left bloody fingerprints at the crime scene.
Reyos is five and a half feet tall with a shy demeanor and gray hair; after a stroke in September, he has had a hard time finding the right words and is slow-moving. Everywhere he walked on Friday—wearing jeans and a bright red sweatshirt—he was hailed by spectators. “How are you feeling?” they asked. “God bless you,” they said. He was sometimes escorted by the three young law students, all women in their twenties who had been working on the case for months and who were devoted to Reyos—and excited about the hearing. “This is the best day of my life,” said one.
One of the unifying things about Reyos’s case is that everyone who looks closely at it becomes certain of his innocence. This has happened time and again for the past four decades. Not long after Father Patrick Ryan was murdered, his supervisor proclaimed Reyos’s innocence. Then in 1991, one of Reyos’s former prosecutors restudied the evidence and wrote then-governor Ann Richards that “it was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime.” The range of publications that have written sympathetically about Reyos’s case is stunning, from the Dallas Morning News and the El Paso Times to Newsweek, Out magazine, and the Austin Chronicle. An Englishman wrote a book. A&E did a documentary. Reyos has been the subject of several podcasts. The legislature of New Mexico, Reyos’s home state, passed a resolution in 2003 asking then-governor Rick Perry to recommend a pardon, and the archdiocese in San Antonio has written letters of support.
But it didn’t matter how many priests, journalists, or podcasters Reyos had on his side, because the State of Texas still considered him guilty. Reyos has been fighting a war with the state for more than forty years—and losing almost every battle. Friday, it looked like he might finally win one, or at least get a fair hearing.
The judge presiding on Friday, Denn Whelan, was in law school when Ryan was murdered in 1981. A Republican district-court judge in a conservative law-and-order county, even he seemed moved by Reyos and his case. As the proceedings were wrapping up, he said, “I’m not aware of any hearing like this ever taking place in Ector County before.” Then he thanked everyone for testifying. “It gives the court a lot to chew on.”
Reyos’s case is a complicated one. I wrote about it in February. Reyos, who was born in 1956 and raised on the Jicarilla Apache Nation reservation in New Mexico, figured out that he was gay as a teenager but lived deep in the closet. His unhappiness led to terrible alcoholism. In 1981, after he moved to Denver City, just across the border in Texas, he became friends with Father Ryan, the local priest. One night he visited Ryan and brought over a photo album of his family. When Ryan was brutally murdered at the Sand and Sage Motel and police found the photo album in his apartment, Reyos became a suspect. They released him because he had eleven receipts showing he was 215 miles away in Roswell at the time of the murder.
But almost a year later, he made a horrible mistake: he called 911 and drunkenly confessed (and immediately recanted). He confessed out of a confused mess of shame and guilt—and happenstance. On the night of that apartment visit, Reyos says the priest forced him to commit oral sex, and the next day the young man asked Ryan for a ride to Hobbs, 35 miles away, which the priest gave him. Ryan was murdered that night. Reyos told me he made that inebriated call because he felt responsible for the murder. “It just kept eating at me, eating at me, eating at me. I should have just hitchhiked to Hobbs. I’d done it before.”
The confession was enough for the jury to find Reyos—whose homosexuality was a factor in the trial—guilty. One of the jurors told a reporter that the verdict was “based on his confession and characteristics.” Reyos was freed as a model prisoner in 1995 but sent back to prison two more times—once for something he did (drunk driving), once for something he didn’t (in 2008 police arrested him for flashing a woman, even though she told them Reyos wasn’t the guy). Today he lives in Austin in a housing complex full of ex-cons.
How his case returned to the Seventieth District Court on Friday is a story of good luck and goodwill. Last year, a young woman in Odessa and a young man in Bryan both heard a podcast episode on the case and asked their father, who happened to be Odessa police chief Michael Gerke, how a man could be found guilty of murder if he had a solid alibi and there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime scene. Curious, Gerke pulled the file, read it, couldn’t figure it out either, and set his men on the case. Though most of the evidence had been destroyed long ago pursuant to department record-keeping policy, Sergeant Scotty Smith found copies of fingerprint cards, and a crime-scene tech, Stacy Cannady, found the actual cards and ran the prints through the nationwide Automated Fingerprint Identification System, a database that didn’t exist in 1983.
The results were stunning: the prints were close matches to those of three men, none of whom were Reyos, and all of whom were dead. The cops contacted the Ector County district attorney’s office, where first assistant Greg Barber was as flummoxed as everyone else. He had gone to law school with Clayton, the deputy director of IPTX. Barber called Clayton, who excitedly took the case. She even brought three of her law students to Odessa, where the police showed them a PowerPoint presentation of the evidence. In February, Clayton filed a writ of habeas corpus in the court where Reyos was convicted forty years ago, saying that he is actually innocent, a legal term for those who can prove, through new evidence, that, in fact, they didn’t commit the crimes they were convicted of. The DA filed a response, which said the same thing, and Whelan set the hearing.
On Friday, everyone in the courthouse was buzzing about the proceedings, from secretaries to security guards. The courtroom itself looked like it hadn’t changed in decades: white walls, brown paneling, portraits of judges from years gone by. Three dozen spectators settled onto the benches.
At the defense table, Reyos sat between Clayton and Mike Ware, the executive director of IPTX, occasionally writing on a notepad. Clayton questioned each of the witnesses, who were unanimous in their opinions on Reyos. “I don’t believe he committed this crime,” said Gerke. “I think Mr. Reyos was wrongly convicted,” said Smith. “I see no evidence that he had anything to do with the murder,” said former Texas Ranger Brian Burney, who had been asked by the DA to review the case file. John Smith, one of Reyos’s trial attorneys, who had gone on to be the Ector County DA for thirteen years and then a district judge, spoke about how, even back in 1983, he believed Reyos was innocent. But he and his partner knew they would have trouble winning the case because of Reyos’s homosexuality. “In 1983 people looked at homosexuality with a very jaundiced eye,” Smith said. “It was considered a bad thing to be gay.” The verdict still troubled him. “It’s haunted me for forty years.”
Another witness who’s been troubled by how the state treated Reyos is Alison Sterken, the woman who was flashed in 2008. She had told the police then that Reyos was not the perp, but still they arrested him, which led to his parole being revoked. Now, when asked why she had traveled 450 miles from Tyler to testify for Reyos, she told the courtroom, “I felt a lot of guilt for not speaking up more loudly on his behalf. I feel like he’s been treated wrongly by the criminal justice system. I want to help right the wrong.”
It’s almost impossible to prove an ex-inmate is legally “actually innocent”; to win requires strong new evidence. In fact, proving it is, according to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, “a Herculean task.” But the strength of Reyos’s case was shown when Smith and Cannady walked the judge through the new fingerprint evidence. A bloody thumbprint from a former Marine named Bobby Collins was found on the showerhead. A bloody fingerprint from Charles Burkart was found on the door. Gary Ehrman had left a print on a plastic cup found behind the broken bed. The faces of all three men were shown on a giant-screen TV.
It turned out that both Collins and Burkart had lived in Odessa in 1981 and that Ehrman had checked into the Sand and Sage an hour after Ryan did—with another three guests. Collins—whose fingerprints could also not be excluded from the cruise control on Ryan’s car and his stolen credit card—had a violent criminal record. Smith testified that he had talked to one of Collins’s sisters and his daughter, both of whom told Smith how violent Collins was after returning from a tour in Vietnam. When Smith told Collins’s daughter about the suspicion that her father might have killed a priest, Smith said she told him she wasn’t surprised, adding that he had spent time running drugs to Mexico. “I know he’s killed more people than what he killed in Vietnam,” Smith recounted her saying.
In most actual innocence hearings, the DA and the defense lawyers are locked in battle, with the prosecutors refusing to admit that their office might have made a mistake. The Odessa hearing was different, as the two sides were working together to exonerate Reyos. There was no sniping, and there were no outbursts from either side. Throughout the hearing, Barber basically acted as a support act for Reyos, asking questions that strengthened his case. “There’s nothing to indicate James Reyos was anywhere near Odessa, right?” he asked Sergeant Smith. “Nothing at all,” was the reply. Barber followed with, “He couldn’t be driving two vehicles at once.”
When it came time to sum up their cases, both parties were eloquent. “Father Ryan suffered a horrible death at the hands of violent, enraged people,” said Clayton. “They destroyed a hotel room and left fingerprints behind. We don’t know exactly what happened that night, but the objective evidence proves it couldn’t have been James Reyos. At this point not a single person thinks James Reyos is guilty. He has been suffering for the last forty years.” The courtroom was dead silent as she wrapped up. “He’s a man who’s kind, timid, and didn’t deserve this. I plead with the court to recommend that this conviction be overturned.”
Barber continued in the same vein. “Everything,” he said, “comes back to this: We can’t find a single thing that points to James Reyos. If this came to us now, we’d look at three suspects and not Mr. Reyos. It’s our belief that Mr. Reyos didn’t commit this crime and we ask the court to exonerate him.”
Now it’s up to Whelan, the judge, to decide whether Reyos has shown he deserves to be found actually innocent. At some point in the next couple of months, Whelan will probably issue a recommendation to the CCA, which has the final say on whether Reyos will be exonerated.
After the hearing, Reyos conducted a series of interviews with media and held a press conference. He sounded tired—and spoke even more quietly than usual. Standing in the hallway, he remembered how this was the last place he had seen his father back in 1983. The old man had attended the trial every day and would sometimes come up behind his son at the defense table and place his hand on his shoulder in mute support. After the trial, the two were allowed a final goodbye. That was the last Reyos saw of him; he died a year later, but Reyos wasn’t allowed to go the funeral. Now, forty years later, Reyos could picture his father slowly walking away from him, using a cane. He still gets tears in his eyes when he thinks about that—and all the other things he lost.