After a Life Spent Behind Bars, Out Walks a Free Man

DALLAS, Aug. 18 – Robert Carroll Coney was in prison when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He was in prison when the Beatles came to America, when men walked on the moon, when the war raged in Vietnam, when Communism fell, and when the Internet and cellphones were invented.

But last week, after spending almost every day of the last 42 years behind bars, Mr. Coney, 76, walked out of the Angelina County jail in Lufkin.

A state district judge had found credence in Mr. Coney’s longstanding claims that he had been beaten into pleading guilty, without a lawyer, to a $2,000 Safeway supermarket robbery that landed him a life sentence in 1962, a term he fled only to be imprisoned many times in other states, escaping often, recaptured often, until he was returned to Texas last year to serve out his original term.

The judge, David V. Wilson, furthermore found that a long-forgotten court order should have expunged those criminal charges as far back as 1973.

All that and much more happened to him, Mr. Coney says in court filings and an interview in Dallas, where he has been reunited with his common-law wife of 50 years, Shirley Jackson, who has stood by him, even going to jail herself for smuggling him hacksaw blades.

“I knew he was a good man, and I loved him,” said Ms. Jackson, 65. Mr. Coney, quiet-spoken and wiry, said he was not bitter. “Anger is not going to solve anything,” he said, and besides, “I believe in the system.” Meanwhile, he was struggling to get used to store prices, like $1.69 for a loaf of bread, and to having to dial his own area code to make a local call.

In the judge’s findings and Mr. Coney’s accounts, the tale unfolds with echoes of “Les Misérables,” with Mr. Coney, a combat veteran of World War II and Korea who had already run afoul of the law, cast into the American prison archipelago after being threatened into pleading guilty and ordered to shut up in court by a guard who silenced him with a racist epithet.

Mr. Coney said sheriff’s deputies deliberately slammed a jail gate on his hand. “My fingers looked like sticks of baloney,” he said holding up a misshapen hand. Judge Wilson wrote that the former Angelina County sheriff, Leon Jones, and his deputies “were known for obtaining confessions by physical force.” One of his tactics, he wrote, “was to get a prisoner’s fingers on either side of a jail cell bar and squeeze those fingers until a prisoner confessed.”

But the former district attorney in the case, Hulen B. Brown, now an 84-year-old lawyer in East Texas, challenged that version of events. “I have never heard of any stuff like what’s put in here,” Mr. Brown said of the judge’s findings.

Much of the history is difficult to document, Judge Wilson acknowledged. Sheriff Jones, the original judge and the court reporter are dead. The transcript is lost. But the Lufkin lawyer who said he had been called in at the last minute to stand by Mr. Coney in court to validate the predetermined guilty plea said Mr. Coney told him afterward that he had been threatened into confessing. “It was well oiled,” said the lawyer, Gilbert Spring, of the plea agreement, reached before his participation. And he said, “That sheriff was the most terrible sheriff we ever had.”

Speaking in the offices of a Dallas paralegal, John Dejean of Judicial Law Assistance Services, whom the couple praised as the first to respond to the hundreds of appeals they sent over the years, and with advising lawyers, David P. O’Neill of Huntsville and Suzanne Lomenick of Dallas, standing by, Mr. Coney acknowledged a life often on the wrong side of the law and so tangled that even he at times despaired of sorting it out. He said that a month before his 17th birthday he added two years to his age to enlist in the Navy, serving with other blacks in the risky ammunition holds of a destroyer escort in the last months of the war in the Pacific in 1945.

He re-enlisted in 1948, this time in the Army under an alias, Roland Smith, landing in Korea where, he said, he was captured by North Korean guerrillas, before escaping and winding up in a stateside hospital only to be questioned about his deceptions. While at Fort Polk, he met Shirley Jackson, then 14, in Baton Rouge, La., but they decided to wait until she was 17 and he 28 to join in common law marriage. A son, Rick, was born in 1955.

But then Mr. Coney said he was caught passing a $65 bad check in Georgia and convicted on federal charges of driving a chop shop’s stolen car with a gun under the seat and sentenced to 15 years in Leavenworth. He had served enough time for release when he was picked up for the Safeway robbery.

Mr. Coney said that he was in Lufkin driving another man, Henry Cooper, the night the sheriff claimed the Safeway was held up but that Mr. Cooper had entered the store alone. “I had nothing to do with it,” Mr. Coney said. Both men were identified by witnesses and confessed, Sheriff Jones said. But in his later application for a writ of habeas corpus, Mr. Coney wrote he “was ruthlessly physically slapped, kicked and punched by deputies,” called the “N-word” and told he could be taken away and shot.

Transported to prison on March 19, 1962, he escaped on May 8, prison records show. Mr. Coney says he bribed a guard with $1,500 but a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Michelle Lyons, said that could not be confirmed.

Two months later, he said, he was rearrested by the government for violating terms of his federal release. When he got out again, he was rearrested in Louisiana for passing small counterfeit checks – for food, he said – and sentenced to 44 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, but the sentence was overturned after he had served 12 years, court records show. He escaped once, he said, making it into the Mississippi River before the current thwarted him.

Another time, he said, he escaped from a Jackson, Miss., hospital by walking out the door and leaving a sawed bar on the window to confound the authorities. The hacksaw blades had been supplied by Ms. Jackson, who spent nine months in jail as a result.

Meanwhile, Mr. Coney had filed a writ seeking dismissal of the Lufkin charges on constitutional grounds. On Sept. 24, 1973, the motion was granted by a Texas district judge in Angelina County, David Walker, who ruled that Mr. Coney “has been found rehabilitated” and “is not a person with present propensities toward violence.” The district attorney concurred.

But no one told Mr. Coney and the order was never put into effect.

In 1983, Mr. Coney was arrested in Mississippi on an assault charge that he describes as a misunderstanding involving a woman wounded by a ricocheting bullet and a plot to murder him for double-indemnity insurance. He got 20 years, during which he worked with AIDS patients and won commendations.

He was released in March 2003. Texas was waiting – returning him to Huntsville to finish out the rest of his life term. But that October he filed a new writ, which set Judge Wilson on his investigation that freed Mr. Coney. He and Shirley were to have been formally married on Friday but the ceremony was put off until Mr. Coney can obtain something better than a prison ID.

Judge Wilson had one final recommendation: “I hope the petitioner hires a good screenwriter.”

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