Chalk it up to a slow news week, but an Observer reporter was intrigued by space travel research being conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. The NASA-funded study required research subjects to lie in a hospital bed for three solid months to test a drug that prevents bone loss, one of the negative effects on astronauts from extended space travel in zero gravity ("Supine Science," Dallas Observer, Dec. 8).
More fascinating than the medical research was the underlying psychology. What kind of person would donate his body to science while he was still alive? Would agree to be repeatedly pricked for blood samples, drilled for bone biopsies and prohibited from raising his upper body above a 30-degree angle for 90 days?
Someone with a lot of time on his hands, obviously. But someone who should be doing time? That possibility never crossed our minds. The thought that this study might draw a felon dodging a trial date apparently never crossed the minds of UT Southwestern scientists either when they agreed to let the Observer do the story.
One of the subjects, 23-year-old Christopher Talton, also agreed to be photographed--lying in a hospital bed playing his saxophone, which is partly how he passed the stultifying months on a mattress.
Talton, presumably overwhelmed with boredom, told the Observer a lot about himself: he was a security guard who quit when his assignments at some Dallas apartment complexes became too dangerous. He was using his prolonged hospital stay--for which he was being paid $6,500--to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He decided he would enroll in community college and become a youth counselor--so he could help kids stay clear of trouble.
Unfortunately a lot of what Talton said wasn't true. He neglected to tell the Observer--or the researchers--that he had a much richer history: he was convicted six years earlier for two aggravated robberies. He also failed to mention that during the time he was confined to the hospital he had an appointment at the Collin County Courthouse for a trial on a third felony arrest--this time for unlawful use of a motor vehicle.
Talton had managed to get the trial postponed, thanks to a letter written by one of UT Southwestern's physicians, Dr. Lisa Ruml. The letter explained that Talton was hospitalized for three months. "He must remain at complete bed rest...and will be evaluated for the presence of renal nephrolithiasis [kidney stones], osteoporosis, and cardiovascular and neuromuscular instability," the letter read. The letter failed to mention that Talton's hospitalization was voluntary and scheduled as part of a research study.
A few months after Chris Talton graduated Roosevelt High School in Oak Cliff, he was accused of taking part in two aggravated robberies in downtown Dallas on October 2, 1988.
"I was 17 and a crazy kid," Talton says.
Talton claims he was only the driver when the crimes were committed. One of the victims was hit in the face with a toy gun, but Talton denies he was the perpetrator.
"But I still participated, which is why I plead guilty," he says.
For his part in the robberies, Talton was sentenced to five years in prison. He spent nine months in the Texas Department of Corrections in Sugarland. In 1992, he was arrested again, this time for unlawful possession of a firearm--a loaded .357 Magnum, a violation of his parole. Talton also gave the police a false name.
Talton claims the gun was not his; he says he was sitting in the back seat of a friend's car and the police found it under the car's front seat. The case is still pending in Dallas County.
Over the next few years, Talton stayed out of serious trouble, but didn't stay completely clear of the law. He spent 90 days in the local jail on two misdemeanor theft by check charges.
In October 1993, Talton was hired by the Matrex Security firm. He worked there for the next several months--mostly at construction sites at night and once at a toy fair in Red Bird Mall, according to his former supervisor Dennis Smith.
Meanwhile the company was conducting its customary background check on its new hires. Three months after Talton was hired, Matrex learned of his prior felony convictions. Smith says Talton was up front about the convictions when he confronted him. But he claimed he had gotten a pardon. When the company asked to see the pardon, Talton quit--sometime in January 1994.
A month later, Talton was pulled over near Texarkana driving a new Acura that had been stolen off a car lot in Plano. Talton told a state trooper he had no idea the car was stolen. He claimed the cousin of a friend had lent him the car. Investigators could not locate the friend or cousin and Talton was charged with unlawful use of a motor vehicle, a third degree felony, punishable for two to 10 years. His trial was set for September 12.
Talton's mother, Mary, works as a secretary in the General Clinical Research Center on the campus of the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Last spring, she told her son about a well-paying research project on her floor that she encouraged him to volunteer for.
The study would investigate the effects of a certain drug in preventing bone loss. When astronauts travel in space for extensive periods of time, they suffer tremendous bone loss in their heels, spines and hips, putting them at risk for fractures and kidney stones.
To replicate zero-gravity conditions, study subjects would have to be confined to bed 24 hours a day for three months. The only qualification for the study was good health and a high threshold for boredom.
Chris Talton fit the bill and was accepted into the study. There was only one hitch. The bed rest portion of the study would begin in mid-August, which meant he wouldn't be available for his trial in mid-September.
Talton's lawyer, John O'Briant, filed for a continuance based on a letter from Dr. Lisa Ruml, one of the doctors in charge of the study, who confirmed Talton was indeed hospitalized.
But O'Briant says he had no idea his client was partaking in a voluntary study. He thought Talton's medical excuse was legitimate. "If I had known it was just a bed rest study, I would have been duty bound and honor bound to inform the court thereof," O'Briant says. "Do you think I would be willing to risk my license for one client?"
Dr. Ruml also pleads ignorance. "I knew he had a court date, but it wasn't my business to ask what for," says Ruml, who says she had no idea that Talton was supposed to be in court for a felony trial.
"I thought it was probably on a traffic ticket," she says. "As long as his health is good, and there is no evidence of drug use, his criminal history has no pertinence to the study. But I guess it is something to think about."
Ruml says Talton's lawyer asked her to make it sound like Talton was sick. "I refused to. I just described the study." The attorney made the same request to the physician who covered for Ruml when she was on vacation; that physician refused as well, according to Ruml.
Ruml may not have written that Talton was sick, but to Sharon Curtis, a Collin County assistant DA assigned to the case, the doctor certainly made it sound that way. Still, Curtis was skeptical.
"It sounded real fishy," Curtis says. "Whoever heard of a 23-year-old man hospitalized for osteoporosis?"
To make sure that Talton was in fact hospitalized, Curtis had an investigator call the hospital. "He [Talton] told me he was very sick and the doctors had no idea what was wrong with him," says the investigator, who has asked for anonymity.
As it turns out, Talton wound up playing into the prosecutor's hands--the DA's office was going to ask for a postponement of the trial anyway. Because Talton had two prior felony convictions, the prosecutor could "enhance the case," or upgrade it to a second-degree felony, and thus increase the possible punishment from 10 to 20 years. But to do that, Curtis says, she needed time to better prepare for trial. The letter gave it to her.
On Dec. 14, two weeks after the bed rest study ended, Chris Talton went to trial. It lasted two days and ended with Talton exchanging one form of confinement for another. A jury deliberated just 20 minutes before finding Talton guilty of unlawful use of a motor vehicle. A judge sentenced him to 15 years in the state penitentiary.
"That little bed stay cost him an extra five years," says Curtis, pleased with the sentence enhancement.
Talton and the bed rest study gave her even more rope. The night before the trial, Curtis says she was "in stitches" when she read that week's Observer and saw the story and Talton's picture. "I couldn't ask for anything better."
As Curtis explains, people caught driving a stolen vehicle frequently claim the car was lent to them by someone else and they had no idea it was stolen. In those cases, a prosecutor tries to undermine the defendant's credibility. Curtis proved to the court that Talton lied in several places in the story--particularly that he left his security job because his apartment complex assignment was dangerous.
Since the trial the Observer learned that Dallas police had earlier this year arrested the people Talton claims lent him the car. The suspects are believed to be part of an international car theft ring, according to police records. Talton's lawyer says he got the information too late to use in the trial.
The day after Talton was convicted, he granted the Observer another interview. This time he was vertical, although his movements were still somewhat restricted. He was in the sterile cinderblock confines of the visitor room in the brand new Collin County Justice Center, remarkably reminiscent of a hospital environment.
Talton insists that everything he told the Observer was true. "I still have intention of going to school and helping kids. I think they can learn from my experience." Talton also steadfastly maintains his innocence in the stolen car case and says he will appeal the conviction. "I will fight this case all the way, because I am innocent," he says.
But if he fails to win that appeal, it is fair to say that Christopher Talton will be available for a very long-term research study.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.