WACO, Texas — Texas' highest criminal court has vacated the convictions of four men in the 1992 shooting deaths of two teens, but rejected their innocence claims.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set aside the convictions for Richard Kussmaul, James Long, Michael Shelton and James Pitts Jr., the Waco Tribune-Herald reported . The court ruled Wednesday that DNA evidence clears the four men in the deaths of Leslie Murphy, 17, and Stephen Neighbors, 14, in Moody.
The court has sent the cases back to McLennan County, where the district attorney's office will determine whether the defendants can be retried.
Long, Shelton and Pitts testified Wednesday that they gave false testimony against Kussmaul at his 1994 trial after a prosecutor promised them probation and a deputy coerced confessions by threatening the death penalty.
The trio had testified at the trial more than 20 years ago that all four of them raped Murphy before Kussmaul shot the teens. Long, Shelton and Pitts recanted their confessions soon after they each were sentenced to 20 years in prison on sexual assault charges.
The newly discovered DNA evidence "constitutes clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have found (the defendants) guilty beyond a reasonable doubt had the new evidence been available at trial," retired State District Judge George Allen wrote in an opinion after the hearing. Allen had presided over Kussmaul's trial.
Kussmaul is serving a life prison term. Long and Pitts have both been released after serving their full sentences. Shelton won parole after serving 17 years.
Long, who now works as a technician, said he's grateful the court overturned his sexual assault conviction, but he's disappointed his innocence claim wasn't granted. He said he's looking forward to being removed from Texas' sex offender registry.
All four men would have been eligible to collect $80,000 apiece from the state for each year they served in prison had the state high court found them innocent.