True Confessions--Or False?

JAMES HARRY REYOS HAD, AS USUAL, been drinking that night. And he had taken "some small white pills" that someone offered him in a bar. That's where his memory fades to black. But police records show that he called 911 from a pay phone outside a strip motel in Albuquerque on Nov. 18,1982, and said he wanted to talk about "the killing of a Catholic priest in Odessa, Texas." When the dispatcher asked, "Who are you?", Reyos replied: "You are talking to the killer." An officer went to the motel. Reyos told him, "I killed Father Patrick Ryan."

For 11 months the grisly murder of the priest, who conducted mass in the dusty towns along the Texas-New Mexico border, had stumped authorities. A cleaning woman at the Sand and Sage Motel in Odessa had found Ryan's nude body, hands tied behind him with a bloody sock, on the morning of Dec. 22,1981. He had been beaten to death with blows so severe they caused his heart to stop, the Coroner ruled. Sheet rock near the door was caved in and drenched with blood; an air conditioner's wires dangled. The priest had registered under a false name, but police discovered his identity four days later. Reyos, a 25-year-old Jicarilla Apache, was one of their first suspects: he had been seen with Ryan in the two weeks before, starting with the day Ryan picked up Reyes while he was hitchhiking near Hobbs, N.M. (Reyos's 1981 Ford pickup had been impounded there after his fifth drunk-driving charge). They spent five hours in a bar that night. Reyos dropped by Ryan's rectory in Denver City, Texas, twice in the following days. When Reyes unexpectedly received a $750 check for his share of the Jicarilla tribe's mineral royalties, Ryan took him to get his pickup out of hock. That was the last he saw Ryan, Reyes told investigators; it was the night Ryan was killed.

When Albuquerque police hauled him off to jail after his confession, Reyos recanted. "I am not the killer," he said. "I just like to cause trouble for law enforcement." The only trouble he caused was to himself: in 1983, a Texas court sentenced him to 38 years in prison for murder, a verdict upheld on appeal. But now an unlikely group of defenders. from Ryan's bishop to the prosecutor who handled the appeal, think Reyos's drunken claim may have put the wrong man in prison. "This is the only letter like this one which I have written in my 16 years ... as a felony prosecutor," Assistant District Attorney Dennis Cadra wrote Texas Gov. Ann Richards last year. "It was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime."

Before arguing the 1984 appeal, Cadra never thoroughly examined the trial transcripts. Last year, when he chanced upon a court clerk who was about to throw out old records, he decided to. No physical evidence had linked Reyos to the crime, and Reyos's court-appointed lawyer, John Cliff Jr., had turned up evidence that cast doubt on his guilt. Both Reyos and Ryan were gay, and on the night before the murder, after beer and vodka, the two allegedly had sex in the priest's rectory room. A forensic psychologist testified that Reyos's guilt over having sex with Ryan drove him to a false confession. But what Cadra focused on, as he stayed up all night reading and poring over a map, were Reyos's meanderings on the night of the murder. Gas-station receipts showed him driving around New Mexico; a college acquaintance, David Myer, testified that he ran into Reyos in Roswell and drank beer with him until 8 p.m. (Ryan died between 7 and midnight). Myer couldn't recall if this happened Dec. 19, 20, 21 (the murder date) or 22. Finally, a state trooper gave Reyes a speeding ticket outside Roswell just after midnight.

Cadra concluded that Reyos met Myer on the 21st: before, Reyes didn't have his pickup; on the 22d, he was in jail for public intoxication. To kill Ryan, Cadra calculated, Reyos would have had to leave Roswell, where he'd been drinking with Myer, drive 200 miles to the murder site, kill the priest and speed 215 miles back to where he got the ticket. All in four hours. "He would have bad to have averaged 111 miles an hour" round trip on narrow, country roads, says Cadra. "It just could not have happened this way."

Even before Cadra's calculations, Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo, who said mass at Ryan's funeral, wrote a prison chaplain, "I, too am convinced [Reyos] is innocent." Of all his 100-plus criminal cases, Cliff told NEWSWEEK, "Reyes was the only one found guilty I was absolutely convinced was not." The original prosecutor disagrees, calling the doubts "Monday-morning quarterbacking," and the Texas parole board concurs. Despite Richards's implicit recommendation of clemency, it denied Reyes parole or pardon in May. His only hope may be that a prisoners' rights group has shown interest in his case. "I think back a lot and wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't come to prison," says Reyes. "But I believe it's part of God's plan that I go through this ordeal. In the end, something good's going to come of it." Perhaps so. But given public outrage toward crime and parole, he faces an uphill climb.