Houston Chronicle

Man free after 12 years in prison for wrongful conviction
Houston Chronicle By Angela K. Brown
December 11, 2004

John Michael Harvey missed out on a lot the past 12 years behind bars: marrying the love of his life who never believed he molested a 3-year-old girl, spending time with his parents who never doubted his innocence.

His relationship with his fiancee fell apart after he was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1992. After draining most of their life savings to defend him, his father died of health problems in 2000, and his mother lost her battle with cancer in 2002.

Now that he has been cleared of the conviction and is finally free again, Harvey must start over. His old life is gone.

"In order for the next several years not to be contaminated and ruined, I need to put closure on it and try not to feel sorry for myself," said Harvey, 40. "I want to have future relationships and not be sad and sour. I need to get back to the man I once was."

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday upheld a lower court ruling of "actual innocence," saying Harvey had been wrongfully convicted. The alleged victim, now a teenager, had recanted.

On Friday, a sheriff's deputy drove Harvey from a prison in the Texas Panhandle to the Tarrant County Jail. He was released that evening after the appeals court received documentation that prosecutors would not seek a new trial for Harvey.

He started walking in downtown Fort Worth, carrying two small bags of belongings, but had no money and nowhere to go. His Houston attorney, Sean Buckley, picked him up Friday night, took him out for a steak dinner and drove back Saturday to Houston, where Harvey has relatives.

"This has allowed the public to see that a wrongful conviction is not as rare as they once thought it was," Buckley said.

Harvey's nightmare started in 1989, when he returned from a trip and learned police had searched his Bedford apartment. When he went to authorities to find out why, they arrested him for sexual assault of a child.

Harvey said he grew up in a small New York town and had never heard of the crime, so he thought the charge was child abuse. When he denied hitting his friend's daughter, police said they believed he had sex with her _ a charge he also vehemently denied.

Harvey, who had no criminal record, was released on bond and remained free until his trial. He got fired from a few jobs when his employers discovered the allegations, so he took some college classes and planned his wedding to his girlfriend.

He was offered a plea deal, but he didn't want to admit to something he didn't do, he said.

"If you're guilty, you're worried. Being innocent, I wasn't concerned," Harvey said.

After the shock of his conviction wore off, Harvey sank into a depression. He lost 30 pounds, and over the years several appeals were denied.

"I went through a three-year period where the sun didn't touch me," Harvey said. "I could have gone outside with the barbed-wire fence, but it just made me sick. I couldn't get on a motorcycle and ride away or spend a romantic evening with my girlfriend by the lake."

Then a few years ago, the alleged victim found out that Harvey was in prison; she had been too traumatized from testifying as a child to realize what had happened.

The teenager told a relative that she had been coerced into lying to authorities. The girl got in touch with Buckley, who had been hired by Harvey's mother to work on getting him released on parole.

With renewed hope that Harvey could be cleared, Buckley presented the new evidence at a March hearing in Fort Worth, where the girl denied that Harvey molested her. The girl's brother testified that he remembered the girl being coached by a relative who had a long-standing grudge against Harvey.

State District Judge Sharen Wilson ruled that Harvey was "actually innocent" and recommended his release. But Harvey refused because he did not want to register as a sex offender.

Harvey thought the appeals court would rule in 60 days to clear him. Although it took much longer, Harvey is glad he waited because he is no longer a convicted felon.

Now, after eating only with spoons the past 12 years, Harvey looks forward to using a fork and cooking his own meals. He wants to take long walks, looking into the sky with no barbed wire obscuring the view.

After spending the holidays with relatives in Houston, Harvey plans to live in Florida and finish writing a book about his ordeal.

"They (prosecutors) destroyed my home here," Harvey said. "I loved living here, but there are too many memories. I had a great friend base. To have all that taken away from me - I don't want to see it anymore."

But as Harvey tries move past the pain of losing 12 years, he realizes how lucky he is.

"On the flip side, I've done an amazing accomplishment," he said. "There are innocent people in prison, and I've done something an awful lot of people have been fighting and trying to do. I'm beat up as hell - there's no two ways about it - but I won in the end."

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