Lawsuit Seeks To Unravel 40-Year-Old Mystery In Priest’s Slaying

The State indicted and tried Mr. Reyos for Father Ryan’s murder.

Photo: Twitter

(Odessa, Texas – February 2, 2023) Thursday, the Innocence Project of Texas filed a lawsuit to formally overturn the conviction in a case that has haunted law enforcement, attorneys, legal scholars, and the Catholic Church for over forty years.

On December 21, 1981, Father Patrick Ryan was found murdered in a motel room in Odessa, Texas. During the initial investigation, the police interviewed James Reyos, (above) who was the last known person to see Father Ryan alive. Mr. 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. The case went cold.

A year later, while heavily intoxicated on drugs and alcohol, Mr. Reyos called 911 and confessed to the murder. Once he was arrested, Mr. Reyos recanted.

The State indicted and tried Mr. Reyos for Father Ryan’s murder. In addition to the confession, the prosecution focused extensively on Mr. Reyos’ Apache Native American race and the fact that he was gay.

Even though no one disputed that it was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime, he was found guilty. Jurors at the time said their decision was based on the confession and on Mr. Reyos’ “characteristics.”

He was sentenced to 38 years in prison and released in 2012.

The Ector County District Attorney’s Office, the New Mexico Legislature, members of the Texas Legislature and the local Catholic Diocese all shared their belief that Mr. Reyos was wrongfully convicted. However, there was not a legal path forward to prove his innocence because all evidence from the case was thought to have been destroyed.

“Even when there was no hope, I refused to give up my fight to prove my innocence,” said Mr. Reyos.

The lawsuit filed Thursday by Innocence Project of Texas asserts Mr. Reyos’ innocence as a result of recently discovered evidence by members of the Odessa Police Department (OPD). OPD found 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.

“IPTX applauds and deeply appreciates the assistance and cooperation of the Ector County District Attorney’s Office and OPD. Their integrity, professionalism, and transparency in this case has set the bar for law enforcement agencies throughout the State of Texas,” said Reyos’ attorney Allison Clayton, Deputy Director of IPTX and Director of the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech School of Law.

“A lot of things have changed in the past forty years,” said Clayton. “For too long, the ignorance, racism, and homophobia at the heart of this case have prevailed over the laws of physics and common sense. We are honored to challenge Mr. Reyos’s wrongful conviction, and we pray this time justice will finally prevail.”

The 70th Judicial Court of Ector County will now decide whether to hold a hearing on the new evidence.

The Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX) is one of the leading innocence organizations in the nation, having exonerated or freed twenty-seven people since 2006. IPTX’s Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech School of Law engages students in advancing IPTX’s mission of exonerating wrongly convicted Texans by providing first-rate legal counsel and investigative services at no cost.

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