After 31 Years Locked Up, Ricky Dale Wyatt is Free But Not Quite Exonerated

Categories: Crime

Wyatt.jpg
Photos by Leslie Minora
Ricky Dale Wyatt, center, walks outside as a free man for the first time in 31 years.
Ricky Dale Wyatt, wearing a sharp suit and yellow tie, walked out of the Frank Crowley Courts Building this afternoon after 31 years in prison -- the longest stint served in Texas before having a conviction vacated, according to his lawyer. Previous record-holder Cornelius Dupree stood off to the side at Wyatt's hearing, emotions surging as he recalled the moment when he was the center of the circus-like celebration, exactly one year ago to the day.

"Mr. Wyatt, it's been a long time, 31 years, but today is a good day for you," Judge John Creuzot said.

When Wyatt looked at the faces in the two front rows packed with exonerees, he was surprised at how many he recognized from the Coffield Unit, where he served his time. Some names escaped him, but he knew them from walking the halls and working in the kitchen. "I didn't know I knew so many," he told Unfair Park, adding that it's "good to see these people."

As of today, Wyatt -- convicted of the rape of a stranger and identified in a police photo line-up in 1981 -- is a free man, but he is not technically an "exoneree." Previously withheld evidence reveals police conducted but did not record a live line-up in which the victim did not identify Wyatt as her attacker. Wyatt's attorneys also say prosecutors and police withheld evidence that shows he did not resemble the victim's description of the perpetrator: For starters, there is a difference of several inches and more 20 pounds, according to Jason Kreag, who is with the Innocence Project of New York.

"It definitely is a case that demonstrates the importance of prosecutors, at the time of the trial, playing by the rules," Kreag said.

The newly discovered evidence was sufficient to get Wyatt out of prison, but it was not enough for the district attorney's office to support a claim of actual innocence, which would make him eligible for state compensation and exoneree benefits. But that's not to say it won't happen eventually.

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Exonerees lined the front two rows of the courtroom.
Johnny Pinchback, who was exonerated in May, sat in the audience this afternoon. "I did time with him," he said, explaining that he knew Wyatt from his years in the Coffield Unit. He pointed down the row at several others and repeated, "I did time with him, I did time with him ..." While many of them knew each other on the inside, the entire group is close and meets monthly.

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Wyatt hugs his daughter, who was three when he was sent to prison.
After Judge Creuzot said he was free to go, Wyatt hugged his tearful daughter, who was 3 when he was imprisoned. He held his baby granddaughter for the first time, explaining that he's never had the chance to meet her.

"I always knew it would come," said Wyatt, whose future plans include fishing and spending time with his friends and family. "God is good."

"A whole lot changed in 1981 when he went away," said Robert Smith, Wyatt's nephew. "Most of my folks moved out of the south." Smith had testified at Wyatt's original trial that his uncle did not and had never fit the victim's description.

"It doesn't end here," Russell Wilson, who leads the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, told Unfair Park. He said his office will continue digging into the case with the possibility of recommending Wyatt's exoneration.

District Attorney Craig Watkins, who was in Washington D.C., at the time of the hearing, said that his office is not ready to agree that Wyatt is "actually innocent," an opinion that the Court of Criminal Appeals must ultimately decide. Though Watkins's office has more work to do on Wyatt's case, the current lack of DNA evidence supporting his innocence is a roadblock -- an issue explored in last week's cover story -- making his case a less clear-cut legal decision than other similar cases.

"We just agree, based on the evidence, that there was prosecutoral misconduct," Watkins told us. "For me to say he's actually innocent, we need to continue to investigate and hopefully we could actually find the perpetrator."

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project of New York, praised Watkins's open-file policy, which allowed for the discovery of previously withheld exculpatory evidence. Wyatt's case was a textbook example of police and prosecutors withholding evidence that would have been valuable to the defense, Scheck said.

"I have a great deal of confidence," Scheck said when asked about the possibility of Wyatt's exoneration, adding that if it wasn't impending, "I don't think he would be let out and dressed so nice."

Gary Udashen, another of Wyatt's lawyers and the president of the Innocence Project of Texas, said the case wouldn't have even been in front of Creuzot today if it weren't for the policies instituted when Watkins took office: "It illustrates what happens when district attorneys will open their files."


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14 comments
Mfan44
Mfan44

God bless him. I hope and pray he enjoys every single moment with his daughter and grandbaby. He deserves it. To still have a faith in God, and to still be able to say God is good after 31 lost years is just beautiful. May he live the rest of his days in happiness and peace. Even though it took too long, thank God his life is now his own again.

Realityobserverrrrr
Realityobserverrrrr

All this really means is that some other black guy committed that rape, and he never got caught.

Ket
Ket

How fantastic is it that these exonerees are there to support each other. It is a shame that there are so many of them, but a blessing that they can help each other through this shared tragedy.

Tim Covington
Tim Covington

I think prosecutors who intentionally withhold evidence that proves someone is not guilty should be locked up in the same prison for the same amount of time as the person who was wrongly convicted.

Guest
Guest

I'm totally holding my breath waiting to see the prosecutor who couldn't be bothered to follow the law and Constitution reap some punishment for his misdeeds (assuming whoever it is is still alive).

We're supposedly a tough on crime state, but nobody ever goes after the prosecutors who routinely violate the law (John Bradley continues to withhold evidence for years and gets everybody together to get their stories straight on the eve of depositions once his longtime protection of a possible serial killer falls apart, and the bar complaint is dismissed in record time). We just clean up the mess they cause, all the while claiming that finding this misconduct years later means the system works.

Darlie Kee
Darlie Kee

Wonderful news but long over due that they investigate some women's cases and with that I am referring to my daughters; i.e., Darlie Lynn Routier.  15 years is just criminal.

Falselyaccused 08
Falselyaccused 08

They don't care another truth or innocence, all they care about is a conviction that ups their status in the DA's office.

james
james

no it means an innocent human has been set free. it doesn't return the years of ruined life, but at least the human is out of the cage. it also means that free people are walking around after doing this to him, and others. our justice system has been a bad joke for years, and some folks are likely dam tired of being the butt of the joke.

trudat
trudat

Most prosecutors seem to enjoy a general blanket of  immunity from the common set of legal principles and laws that most people must obey.  The same can be said for judges and police. Of course, those who have enough money to spend (like the 1%) can come and go with much more ease.  It will be like this until we change  it.  I would love to see Texas demand the same penalties for judicial and prosecutorial misconduct and official oppression that it demands of the everyday citizen.  If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander.  Equally applied justice  is good for citizens as well as prosecutors and judges and  police. 

james
james

'the system works very well  for locking up innocents for most of their lives. the people who stole their lives should forfeit their own freedom. no justice.

Falselyaccused 08
Falselyaccused 08

In my opinion Darlie is a victim of a corrupt judicial and legal system. Something needs to be done!

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