The man convicted of murder in Odessa in 1983 was proven “actually innocent” and exonerated by the Criminal Court of Appeals of Texas.
James Reyos, a client of Texas Tech University's Innocence Clinic, part of the Innocence Project of Texas and the clinical programs at Texas Tech's School of Law, was granted post-conviction habeas relief by the Criminal Court of Appeals of Texas Wednesday (Oct. 4).
In 1983, Reyos was convicted of murdering Catholic priest Patrick Ryan despite a case that had no physical evidence linking him to the crime. He was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Reyos spent decades incarcerated, consistently proclaiming his innocence even after he was released on parole. The case has been covered extensively by Texas Monthly.
The exoneration came after the case was brought to Allison Clayton, School of Law clinical fellow and director of the Innocence Clinic, by Greg Barber. Barber was a prosecutor with Ector County and he, along with his office, had done significant groundwork on the case and believed Reyos could be exonerated.
“After Greg reached out to me, I knew that James' case would be perfect for the Innocence Clinic,” Clayton said. “Because James is free world – meaning on parole – it would be easier to access him. The vast majority of our clients are incarcerated, and Texas prisons can unexpectedly go on lockdown at any time, making visitation impossible. But an important part of the clinic is working with our clients - not just understanding their cases, but building a genuine relationship with them.
“The counseling and advocacy at the heart of the attorney-client relationship requires a significant amount of rapport-building on both sides. I knew the students would have access to James in a way that we don't normally get with our other clients. I had also spoken with James myself several times. His gentleness and grace made me confident the students would immediately fall in love with him.”
Clayton and the students of the Innocence Clinic looked over the 40-year-old trial transcripts along with police files. Much of the historical evidence from Reyos' case was destroyed in the 1990s, but the Innocence Clinic pulled together experts in the areas of false confessions, faulty eyewitness testimony and fingerprint comparisons.
“Because there wasn't just a whole lot left in James' case, it only took about six months,” Clayton said. “After we filed our petition, which initiated litigation, the trial court set a hearing, so we got to work preparing for that.
“The courtroom aspect provides the students with hands-on experience that most law school students don't get. Even if the judge doesn't let the students present, which the judge in James' case did not permit, just the experience of going through witness prep and figuring out the logistics of in-court litigation is invaluable. It's something you can't learn in a classroom.”
The trial court hearing, which took place this summer, took only a day and the judge recommended relief for Reyos, but there was still a major step to take.
“When the judge ended up recommending relief, we were all just thrilled, but we knew we still had the final, and biggest, hurdle to face - the Court of Criminal Appeals – which is the Supreme Court over criminal law matters in Texas,” Clayton said. “Frankly, I am shocked that they ruled less than two months after the case was forwarded to them. It's the fastest I have ever seen them grant relief. But here we are - less than two months later they ruled in our favor. James Reyos no longer carries the scarlet letter of ‘murderer.'”
The exoneration of Reyos means he can now, four decades later, move on with his life. He's free to leave the state.
When Clayton called Reyos to tell him about the ruling, he told her he wanted to go home, back to the mountains of New Mexico where he could see his family.
Even with the exoneration, Clayton and the Innocence Clinic have work left to do for Reyos.
“Technically, James is still facing indictment, so we have to get the district attorney's office to file a motion to dismiss that indictment and convince the trial judge to grant it,” Clayton said. “Then, we have to file the paperwork to get James compensated for all those years he has lost.”
Clayton's estimate of the money owed to Reyos for the time lost reaches seven figures.
“The money, 100% of it goes straight to James to do exactly whatever he wants,” she said. “I hope he uses it to get a place with air conditioning and a private bathroom, something he hasn't had since 1982. Whatever he does with it, the connection that we have with this man, as with all our clients, is one that lasts a lifetime.
“My family knows James' story. The students' families all know James' story. So whatever James' next steps are, we will all be here to support him. We've changed his life, and he's changed ours. That is what being an innocence attorney and a student in the Innocence Clinic is all about.