Rickey Dale Wyatt walked out of Judge John Creuzot's Dallas courtroom on January 4, 2012, finally a free man. After 31 years in prison, his 1981 aggravated rape conviction was set aside after Creuzot and District Attorney Craig Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence at trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeal formally vacated the conviction four months later.
"Now," Wyatt's attorneys write in a civil suit filed Thursday, "he seeks his own justice."
Wyatt's version of justice involves forcing the parties who conspired to lock him up -- the city of Dallas, Dallas County, and a handful of individual Dallas police officers -- to compensate him for his lost years. He is seeking unspecified damages.
Wyatt, who spent more time behind bars than any other wrongfully convicted inmate in Texas, had been serving a 99 year sentence. A Dallas County jury found him guilty of grabbing a woman off a South Dallas street and raping her in a vacant lot in 1980, one of a cluster of three rapes police believed were committed by the same attacker.
According to the lawsuit, police fabricated and withheld information to bolster the case against Wyatt. Two of the three victims ultimately IDed Wyatt as their attacker, but not the first time around. None recognized him when first shown his picture as part of a photo lineup, nor did one of the victims pick him out of a live lineup. This information was concealed by police.
As for the discrepancy between the rapist described to police -- clean-shaven, between 170 and 200 pounds -- and the 140-pound, mustachioed Wyatt, a Dallas police officer explained explained that Wyatt had lost 30 pounds over 10 days.
Also at issue was a blood test done on samples taken from the victim's rape kit. The test was inconclusive, but a forensic analyst from Dallas County's Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences testified that it put Wyatt among the 20 percent of the population who could have committed the crimes. Prosecutors proclaimed that "all the scientific evidence found was consistent with [Wyatt's] guilt."
Wyatt didn't know any of this when he appealed the case. Further complicating his appeals was the claim made in 2004 by Dallas County's Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences that it had lost the biological evidence against him.
When it reappeared 18 months later, a DNA test excluded Wyatt as the rapist. That was enough to convince Watkins' office to open its case file, which revealed the withheld evidence, which led to Wyatt's conviction being overturned.
Wyatt, unlike dozens of other wrongfully convicted prisoners before him, is not getting compensation for his incarceration from the state. His lead attorney on the lawsuit, Houston's John Wesley Raley, says that's because of a technicality.
"I represented Michael Morton, and Michael was declared 'actually innocent' by the state," Raley says. "Those are two very important words. That entitles them to state compensation. Those words were not used in connection with Rickey."
Wyatt is instead staking a claim on a provision of federal law allowing injured parties to sue over the deprivation of their constitutional rights. His attorneys argue that the willful manipulation of evidence by police was a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection.
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"Law enforcement cannot conceal evidence of innocence or fabricate evidence," Raley says. "There are several examples of the Dallas police doing both."
Wyatt, meanwhile, is trying to adjust to freedom. He's been reunited with his daughter and met his grandchild but is struggling.
"[H]e has been denied a lifetime of memories, career opportunities, and life experiences," the suit says. "Until recently, he had never seen the Internet or a cellular phone. He has suddenly found himself dropped into a world in which he is ill-equipped to survive."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.