Overturned conviction frees Texas man who served 31 years in rape

A 56-year-old Texas man who served 31 years for rape, was released from prison Wednesday after a judge ruled that prosecutors had withheld evidence that could have helped clear him of the charges.

Rickey Wyatt was convicted in a 1980 sexual assault in Dallas and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. But when new evidence emerged, a Dallas County judge vacated the conviction.  

“It’s been a beautiful thing to be able to enjoy your life as free man — for the last 15 minutes,” Wyatt told The Times, only minutes after exiting the courtroom.

In January 1981, Wyatt was arrested in connection with three related sexual assaults and was tried and convicted of one attack. Throughout the trial, he maintained his innocence, rejecting a plea bargain for a five-year sentence.

“It was devastating,” he said. “But I was sure that one day I would be free.”

After his arrest, Dallas Police failed to alert prosecutors of a line-up viewed by one of the victims, said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, which represented Wyatt.

That victim said Wyatt resembled her attacker, but was far too small to be him, Scheck said.

Victims of the crimes had described their attacker as a clean-shaven man who weighed 170 to 200 pounds. During the trial, Wyatt’s friends and family members testified that he consistently had facial hair and weighed about 140.

The prosecutors, while contending that the witnesses were lying, had a photo of Wyatt taken at the time of the arrest that showed him with facial hair and a fingerprint card that documented his weight at 135 pounds.

The prosecution withheld the evidence, never turning it over to the defense. If they had, Wyatt may never have been convicted, Scheck said.

Wyatt’s release is not, however, an exoneration.

The case now goes before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide whether to vacate the conviction based on the new evidence. The Dallas County district attorney’s office will also determine whether DNA evidence is enough to declare Wyatt innocent of the crime.

If he is declared innocent, he is eligible to receive compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment, Scheck said.

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--Stephen Ceasar

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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