76-Year-Old Texas Man Freed From Prison

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ETLUFKIN, Texas - A 76-year-old man who spent nearly every day of the last four decades in prison walked free after a judge found that deputies extracted his confession to a 1962 robbery by crushing his fingers between cell bars.

After walking out of the Angelina County jail Tuesday with his wife, Robert Carroll Coney said he was not bitter. "I'm going to try to pick up the pieces," Coney said. "If I was angry, what could I do about it?"

Coney was convicted of robbing a Safeway supermarket in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison. Many times he escaped from facilities in other states — including South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi — only to be recaptured each time. He was returned to the Texas prison system last year.

Coney said his identity had been confused with a man he had carpooled with through Lufkin on the day of the robbery. State District Judge David Wilson, who dismissed Coney's charges, investigated and found that the sheriff of Angelina County at the time and his deputies used physical force to extract confessions, often crushing prisoners' fingers between jail cell bars.

When Wilson questioned Coney, the prisoner held up two twisted and bent fingers.

"I remember the sheriff well," Coney said.

He said the jailers, in addition to mangling his hand, threatened his life and scared him into confessing. Wilson's findings stated Coney probably did not see a lawyer until he stood before a judge in the case with then-court-appointed lawyer Gilbert Spring. Spring said he didn't remember Coney's case and told Wilson that courts frequently called attorneys in the 1960s to stand with defendants for no money.

"It really contains everybody's worst fears about what went on during certain darker years in this country," said Huntsville attorney David P. O'Neill, who worked on Coney's case. Coney said he may consider a civil suit at some point but initially wants to focus on his family.

Holding his wife's hand as he left the jail Tuesday for their Dallas home, Coney said little about the ordeal. "We're going home," Coney said.

(The Associated Press, August 20, 2004)

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