The Wrong Man

The case against Nickiolas Jolly fell apart within a month of his arrest for capital murder. But keeping an innocent man in jail 14 months is no big deal in this town.

In August 1997, when they took him to jail, Nick Jolly was 18 years old and had just graduated from Lincoln High School, where his mother and aunt both graduated before him. He was a third-generation Dallasite. His grandfather came here from South Texas to work for the Dallas water department, and his grandmother came from East Texas to work as a domestic. The family had been in the Rochester Park neighborhood, at the bow of Central Expressway and the Hawn Freeway, since the whites left in the '50s.

That August, Nick was finishing up a summer of relaxation after graduating. He had worked at various short-term jobs and was in the process of making up his mind about seeking some more permanent employment or perhaps following his older brother to college. But those possibilities were closed to him on the morning of August 20.

Early that morning, two Dallas police detectives came to the home of his aunt, Phyllis Jolly, on Scott Street in Rochester Park, where Nick had been staying. Sitting in the living room while his aunt listened intently, the detectives told Nick that his friend Tim Garrett had implicated him in a brutal triple gun-slaying that had occurred a few hours earlier and a few blocks away.

"They kept telling me Tim Garrett had said I did all this stuff, but I knew they were lying," Nick says, "because I knew I hadn't done nothing."

Nick is a big young man, with broad shoulders and large hands. When his face closes in a suspicious glower, he looks much older than his 19 years. But when he ranges around the room, sawing the air with his hands while he talks, he sounds like a bewildered kid.

Phyllis Jolly, a small, intense woman in her 30s, listened quietly to the detectives' speeches until she was sure she had the drift. Then she tried to cut it off.

"I asked them if they had a warrant," she says.
They did. They arrested Nick for outstanding traffic tickets.
While they were handcuffing him, another detective who had helped coach Nick on a Lincoln High School football team came to the door of the house. "I called out to him, 'Hey, look what they're doing to me,'" Nick says. "'Tell 'em! You know I didn't do nothing like this!' But he just dropped his head."

Phyllis Jolly, who had been Nick's surrogate mother during much of his life, followed her handcuffed nephew out to the squad car, then raced back into the house and got busy on the telephone.

From that moment until the case against him finally collapsed, Nick Jolly remained a police prisoner, first in the city jail and then in the Lew Sterrett county jail--for 14 months. Those 14 months behind bars were not an especially unusual amount of time for a prisoner in a capital murder case to wait, without a chance of making bail, for his case to come to trial. Under the current interpretation of the constitutional guarantee of a "speedy trial," some prisoners wait in the Dallas County jail as long as three years.

If there is a difference in the Jolly case, it is that the case against him was so obviously weak so early on. Within a month of his arrest, all of the basic facts that eventually destroyed the case against him already had been established by his Dallas attorney, Arch McColl. But even McColl says the refusal of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office to back away from a patently lousy case was far from unusual. Instead, McColl says, it's a posture that was typical of then-District Attorney John Vance, who decided not to run for another term in the November election.

Henry Wade, the legendary prosecutor who preceded Vance, culled his cases carefully--an important factor in his famously high conviction rates. But McColl and other criminal lawyers say Vance took a lazier, politically safer, and much crueler route. Abetted by his hands-off chief assistant Norm Kinne (Kinne announced he would resign after Vance decided not to run), Vance told his staff to indict anything and everything in the in-box. That way, no one could accuse him of being soft on crime.

"When Hugh Lucas used to be in charge of the grand jury under Henry Wade," McColl says, "he was directed by Wade to get rid of questionable cases or to recommend at least to the grand jury that they not indict cases. It seemed John Vance's philosophy was to try almost everything. It was much more difficult under his regime to get a fair hearing in the grand jury."

After his arrest, Nick Jolly spent the next year and two months in a two-bunk cell in a 30-man tank in the North Tower of the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, in a high-security area where they keep the home-invasion killers, rapists, armed robbers, and other dangerous prisoners. For most of those 14 months, he either talked on the pay phone to his family or lay on his bunk trying to control the pounding pressure inside his head. He tried not to get drawn into conversations, not even to hear the jail-house nonsense around him--the crazies who would just make him crazy too, if he talked to them, the snitches who only wanted to sell him out.

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