James Reyos was declared innocent by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today, October 4, the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX) has announced.
The court’s decision to exonerate Reyos was based on recently discovered fingerprint evidence that identified the real perpetrators and the overwhelming evidence that he was in New Mexico at the time of the murder, IPTX said on Wednesday.
“We are grateful for the court’s swift action on this case," said Allison Clayton, Deputy Director of Innocence Project of Texas, and Reyos’ attorney.
"James has been living with this burden for more than 40 years and his name has finally been cleared.
“We want to thank the Odessa Police Department and Ector County District Attorney’s Office for their cooperation.
“This case is a testament to what can happen when everyone works together for justice.”
According to IPTX, on December 21, 1981, Father Patrick Ryan was found murdered in a motel room in Odessa, Texas.
During the initial investigation, the police interviewed Reyos, who was the last known person to see Father Ryan alive. Reyos established through multiple witnesses, store receipts, and even a speeding ticket, that he was in New Mexico at the time of the murder. Texas Rangers verified the information and ruled him out as a suspect.
A year later, while heavily intoxicated on drugs and alcohol, Reyos called 911 and confessed to the murder. Once he was arrested, Reyos immediately recanted.
The State indicted and tried Reyos for Father Ryan’s murder. In addition to the confession, the prosecution focused extensively on Reyos’ Apache Native American race and the fact that he was gay. Even though no one disputed that it was physically impossible for Reyos to have committed the crime and no evidence linked him to the crime scene, he was found guilty. Jurors at the time said their decision was based on the confession and on Reyos’ “characteristics.”
Reyos served 20 years in prison and was initially released in 2004. Despite significant support from attorneys, legal scholars, and legislators who believed he was wrongly convicted, there was not a legal path forward to prove Reyos’ innocence because all evidence from the case was thought to have been destroyed.
In 2022, members of the Odessa Police Department (OPD) discovered fingerprints in their archived files that had been taken from the crime scene and from Father Ryan’s stolen car and wallet. OPD ran the prints through AFIS, the national fingerprint database, and performed their own comparison. The analysis revealed the identities of Father Ryan’s killers - individuals with criminal histories who were known to be staying at the same motel at the time of the murder. All of the real perpetrators have since passed away.
“I am so grateful to Innocence Project of Texas for this day. I want this to serve as hope to the people of Texas that justice can prevail,” said Reyos on hearing the court’s decision.
Reyos, whose father passed while he was in prison, tearfully added: “My father told me to never give up and I never did.”