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

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.

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.

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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Leslie Minora