Words held hostage

The national media reported on every detail of the dramatic "Texas Seven" prison escape -- except the fugitives' harsh criticism of the state's criminal justice system when they surrendered.

Published January 26, 2001 6:23PM (EST)

As part of their deal to surrender to police custody in Colorado Wednesday morning, Patrick Murphy Jr. and Donald Newbury -- the last remaining fugitives of the "Texas Seven," who snuck out of a maximum security prison in a dramatic 2 1/2 hour escape on Dec. 13 that would have made Houdini proud -- demanded a live television interview.

It's not unheard of for wrongdoers to manipulate the media in order to sell their message (think Unabomber) -- or, more commonly, to save their asses (think O.J.). But these two men, who were on the run for 42 days before their capture in a modest Holiday Inn room that doubled as their arsenal -- used their last five minutes in the free world to criticize the Texas criminal justice system.

News accounts of the convicts' capture made note of their unusual request. But most gave short shrift to their message. In fact, FBI agents and local law enforcement officials found themselves on the defensive for agreeing to the two men's plea for free media. Many news outlets seemed, after the fact, to be unwilling to give the men publicity by broadcasting their message.

So what did the two men say about Texas's oft-criticized criminal justice system?

"The judicial system in the state of Texas has really gone to the pits," said Newbury, who was doing time for armed robbery with a deadly weapon. "We're receiving 99 years for a robbery for $68 and nobody's injured. There's no proof a gun was used in the robbery other than an unreliable witness who picked out several IDs and everything before, who created a statement through information in my files and everything else that apparently the prosecutor had given him which is strictly against the law as well.

"They're giving kids so much time that they will never get to see light again. Their life is gone. Now all they are is a roach in a cage. Things have to be changed, there has to be more rehabilitation in the system down there. You know I couldn't even go to college. 'Oh, Lord, you can't go to college. Come on.' Where's the rehabilitation when you can't even help yourself?" Newbury asked.

Newbury also had harsh words for the state's public defender program. "I had to threaten to beat my attorney up so I could get another attorney because my first attorney spent three months and hadn't even come talk to me. What kind of judicial system gives you a defense that won't even show up. All right? Hello?" he told KKTV.

Many media outlets have reported extensively on Texas' flawed criminal justice system. There have been numerous reports in the Texas press about attorneys who slumbered through trials, came to court drunk or high or were just generally incompetent defenders who failed to present evidence in their possession that could have proven exculpatory for the defendant.

In another high-profile case, Christopher Ochoa served 12 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn't commit. The real killer, as Salon reported, confessed to the crime in a letter to then-Gov. George W. Bush's office that sat, ignored, for two years until pressure from the press forced the governor to act during his presidential campaign. Ochoa was released from prison earlier this month.

"I felt by trying to make this statement maybe we could make more people aware that there is a definite wrong within the penal system of the state of Texas," Murphy told KKTV anchor Eric Singer. "And that we would hope that maybe what we're doing here could open the eyes of the people." Murphy was serving 50 years for rape.

Texas' flawed justice system doesn't make these men innocent, of course. The most dramatic manhunt of the year may be over, but the Texas Seven now face even more serious charges, and possibly the death sentence, for allegedly killing a police officer during the Christmas Eve heist of a sporting goods store in Irving, Texas.

Behind bars or not, Newbury is adamant about keeping his voice in the media. "I've been set for the last 40 days to die," he told KKTV. "I'm stepping out of these doors with the sole purpose of honoring the person I love and to keep my voice in the media. I'm going to start writing (garble) ... we're both going to do it. We're going to keep screaming. We're going to try to get something changed."

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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