The police, district attorney, and judge all agree he’s innocent. Why is Lydell Grant still a convicted murderer?
Grant spent more than seven years of a life sentence in prison for killing a man outside a Houston bar. Now free on bond—and a confessed killer in jail—
he’s fighting to clear his name.

By Matt Keyser

Sept. 1, 2020

GRAY CLOUDS HUNG heavy over downtown Houston the day Lydell Grant walked out of jail. It was just after 4 in the afternoon when he stepped out the doors with his mother and brother by his side, surrounded by family, friends, and his lawyers. He raised one arm in the air and gave a fist pump with the other as “free at last!” chants filled the street.

 

He wore a black polo shirt—unbuttoned and untucked over his black jeans—that covered his linebacker’s build. It was a stark difference from earlier that morning when he stood before a judge in an orange jumpsuit, his bald head shining under the courtroom lights with his hands cuffed behind his back, as the judge listed his bond conditions.

A smile stretched across his clean-shaven face as he approached a scrum of reporters who barraged him with questions about his newly found freedom days before Thanksgiving. What were his plans? “Eat a big, big turkey” and “peach cobbler” and “spend time with my family,” he said with an arm over his mother’s shoulder and his fingers intertwined with hers. What does he have to say to the people who sent him to prison? “I don’t have any bitterness in my heart for them.” What’s next as investigators take another look at the decade-old murder case against him? “I feel rejuvenated. I feel free now. It was a long time coming. I always claimed my innocence.”

Lydell Grant walked out of the Harris County Jail on Nov. 26, 2019, after posting bond while the murder case against him is reinvestigated. (AP photo)

It was a picture-perfect moment, the kind he imagined for all the years he sat locked away “like an animal in a cage,” waiting to proclaim his innocence to the world. Years earlier, he was sentenced to life in prison after six eyewitnesses said he repeatedly stabbed a man to death outside a crowded Houston nightclub. But with the help of a new set of lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas, Grant, now 43, had been given a second chance. DNA found under the victim’s fingernails pointed to another man with a violent past—one that, police would later learn, involved more stabbings.

But for the first time in years, Grant could momentarily put that all in the back of his mind and focus on his freedom as he stood in the warm, humid air. “Thank you, Lord,” he said, in what’s become his personal catchphrase. When asked about his plans after leaving the jail, Grant smiled, two dimples piercing his high cheeks, and said he wanted one thing: quietness. “I want to be away from everything and everybody and just let God talk to me and just meditate and just enjoy the peace and quiet.”

Something he didn’t have for the past nine and a half years.

THE DISTANT SCREAMS grew louder as Aaron Scheerhoorn ran from the shadows towards the bright lights of Blur Bar, a popular club in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. It was nearing midnight on a warm Friday in December 2010, cigarette smoke wafting through the air as three bouncers guarded the front door.

 

“He’s trying to kill me!” Scheerhoorn screamed as he ran up the brightly lit front steps. A bouncer stopped him before he could open the door as another man ran to the bottom of the steps. One of the bouncers would later say he thought the two were having a “lover’s spat” and told them to take it elsewhere. Frantic and out of breath, Scheerhoorn lifted his bloody shirt, revealing stab wounds across his chest.

 

From the bottom steps, the man began swinging a knife at Scheerhoorn. The bouncers jumped. Unable to get into the club, Scheerhoorn ran back into the shadows of an adjacent parking lot.

 

Brittany Watkins was standing next to the balcony of the upstairs patio when she heard the screams. She watched as Scheerhoorn ran from the man she would later tell police was at least 6-feet tall with a wiry build and long arms that he used to grab Scheerhoorn’s jacket, pull him close, and repeatedly stab him. Horrified no one was helping, Watkins ran inside the crowded bar and got towels from a bartender. Once outside, she found Scheerhoorn lying alone, blood staining the rugged ground, gasping for air.

 

Watkins and her boyfriend held the towels against Scheerhoorn’s wounds to slow the bleeding, fighting to help the man whose name they didn’t even know. Watkins ran her hands through Scheerhoorn’s brown hair, hoping to calm him until help arrived. Seconds felt like minutes as they waited for an ambulance. Before the flashing lights appeared, Watkins watched as Scheerhoorn’s eyes dilated, his breathing slowed. He died just after midnight.

 

Witnesses would later tell police the stabbing was cold and calculated; others said it was personal and the man had every intention of killing Scheerhoorn. One man told police he watched the attacker slowly walk away before he disappeared into the darkness of a nearby neighborhood. Witnesses described the attacker as a Black man, between 6-feet and 6-feet 7-inches, 200 and 270 pounds, with short hair and a body described as wiry or athletic. Detectives with the Houston Police Department searched surveillance cameras from neighboring bars, investigated a receipt found in Scheerhoorn’s pocket, and questioned why Scheerhoorn’s wallet was found in a front yard near Blur Bar. Nothing provided any meaningful results. They were left with little else than the broad description.

Aaron Scheerhoorn ran up the front steps of Blur Bar to get away from his attacker just before midnight on Dec. 10, 2010. (Photo: Matt Keyser)

GRANT COULDN’T HAVE known when he parked his car outside Blur Bar the following night that someone would send an anonymous tip to police. That tip, a vehicle identification number, came back to Grant’s white Pontiac, which gave them their first real lead: not only did they have a name, but Grant’s physical description matched that of the killer: a Black man, 6-feet 2-inches, 225 pounds, with black hair. Detectives also learned Grant had a criminal history, including a recent one-year stint in prison for using stolen credit cards.

 

Sgt. Eli Cisneros, a 20-year veteran with the police department who had five years as a homicide investigator, pulled an old booking photo and put it in a six-person photo lineup he would show to the witnesses. It’s a technique that’s been used for decades by detectives who rely on witness identification to vet a suspect, though the practice has come under attack in recent years as more people are exonerated because of mistaken eyewitness identification.

 

Two days after Scheerhoorn’s murder, Cisneros and his partner, William Ferguson, showed the photo lineup to the seven witnesses. “This is the guy I saw stab a guy” and “the guy I circled was the guy I seen stab another guy at Blur where I work,” two of the bouncers wrote after picking Grant’s photo. Watkins wrote, “This is the guy that I saw stab the white male at Club Blur.” She would later say the attacker’s face was burned into her memory and he “looked very determined, which is the reason I have no problem recognizing his face.” In all, six of the seven witnesses picked Grant from the photo lineup. Armed with the anonymous tip and the word of the witnesses, the detectives went to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an arrest warrant.

 

Grant, though, has never disputed he was in the area the night of the murder. Then 33, Grant told me he would often visit the bars to get away from the people he knew and relax. The night of the murder, he met a man outside a bar less than half a mile away from Blur Bar. Raul Rodriguez had driven in from Austin that night for a weekend getaway. The two passed each other in a parking lot just after 11 when Grant stopped him and struck up a conversation. Rodriguez, a 52-year-old who had recently beaten cancer, felt a connection to the tall, handsome man standing before him. They spent the next few hours at various bars drinking and getting to know one another.

 

Around 1 the next morning, they left for an after-hours club near downtown Houston, where they stayed until the early morning. At no point, Rodriguez testified at trial, was Grant ever acting suspiciously or in a manner that suggested he killed a person. He never noticed any blood on Grant’s white shirt or jeans, and there was never a time the two weren’t together until they parted ways later that morning.

 

That made it all the more confusing for Grant as he sat in an interrogation room five days after Scheerhoorn’s murder, questioning how he got involved in a crime for which he knew he was innocent. In the interrogation room, Sgt. Cisneros shared his theory. Grant killed Scheerhoorn because Scheerhoorn owed him money for drugs. When he didn’t pay, Grant killed him. 

 

There was no physical evidence ever found at the crime scene linking Grant to the murder, yet he was charged and booked in the Harris County Jail.

EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY IS extremely persuasive during trial because juries often put a lot of weight in a person who testifies to the harrowing details of a crime. Jurors tend to believe that a person who experienced a traumatic event will likely remember details such as the attacker’s face or other identifiable characteristics. But as forensic science has grown and become more widely accepted in court—specifically DNA evidence—it’s also shown how memories can’t always be trusted, especially in stressful situations when a weapon is involved; details can be tainted or forgotten altogether, memories can fade over time. 

 

There was an alarming trend discovered in the early 1990s that showed many DNA exonerations were linked, at least in part, to mistaken eyewitness identification. Since 1989, when the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking wrongful convictions in the United States, more than 76 percent of DNA exonerations include witnesses who identified the wrong person. Of those, the wrongfully identified person was Black in 65 percent of the cases. 

 

Often, it’s not that witnesses are trying to deceive the jury, said Dr. Laura Smalarz, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University who’s studied mistaken eyewitness identification for the past 11 years. Rather, she said, our memories don’t record like a video camera. In a situation like a stabbing, there’s a lot of movement fighting for our attention, our adrenaline flows as fear grabs hold, and our minds race to process the event as quickly as it’s happening. “In crimes in which a weapon is present,” Smalarz said, “witnesses’ memories of the culprit will tend to be weaker than if there had not been a weapon present.” Witness’ memories also tend to be less reliable when the suspect is a different race, such as in Grant’s case: five of the six eyewitnesses weren’t Black, which, Smalarz said, makes “eyewitnesses particularly susceptible to external influence.”

[Six eyewitnesses misidentified a murderer – here’s what went wrong in the lineup | Dr. Laura Smalarz]

 

Prior to 2011 in Texas, investigators who used photo lineups did so with few regulations. Often, the lead detective in the case created a lineup of six people with similar appearances and presented it to a witness. Though seemingly innocuous, it posed problems. Could a detective lead a witness, purposefully or not, by giving clues to the presumed suspect?

 

Texas lawmakers passed a series of guidelines for eyewitness identification in 2011, the year after Scheerhoorn was killed. Notably, when using a photo lineup, a detective not associated with the case must administer it. It’s a process known as a double-blind procedure, in which the lineup administrator doesn’t know the perceived suspect and can’t give any clues—inadvertently or not. The detective must also record the lineup and take a statement from the witness as to their confidence in their selection.

 

The guidelines are now used by the Houston Police Department, said Chief of Police Art Acevedo, who’s led the department since 2017. “Part of that is we want to avoid erroneous witness identification of the person, because, again, I really believe that the only thing worse than not catching a murderer or a violent criminal is charging an innocent person,” the chief said.

 

Those changes came too late for Grant. At his trial in December 2012, two years after Scheerhoorn’s murder, prosecutors relied heavily on the six eyewitnesses who picked him in the photo lineup. A bouncer from Blur Bar, who later quit his job because of the murder, told the jury he made sure to focus on the killer during the attack and was certain it was Grant. Another employee pointed to Grant in the courtroom and said Grant had “every intention of doing what he was doing.” Brittany Watkins told jurors Grant was “definitely the person I saw stabbing the victim that night. … And I see him in here and he is exactly what he looked like to me that night.”

 

Multiple witnesses testified that after picking Grant, Sgt. Cisneros, the lead detective, told them good job or that they picked the same suspect as other witnesses. Those types of confirmatory statements, Smalarz said, distort witness’ memories and give them false confidence about their selection, which can lead to testimony that is highly persuasive to jurors. (Cisneros testified at Grant’s trial that he didn’t recall giving that feedback to any of the witnesses. William Ferguson, his partner, said years later that Cisneros didn’t make those statements.)

 

Grant’s court-appointed attorney, Craig Still, fought with little success to discredit that testimony. When Still questioned one of the witnesses’ memories of the attack, he agreed it was a “mental blur” despite telling the jury his memory of the killer’s face was “very, very good.” Another witness said, “If I didn’t see anybody that looked like the person who committed the crime, I wouldn’t have circled the photo.”

 

Prosecutors openly admitted they didn’t have a motive. They never found the knife and there was no physical evidence linking Grant to the murder. But they questioned DNA found under Scheerhoorn’s right fingernail. Testing revealed there were two sets of DNA found: Scheerhoorn and an unknown man. The Houston Police Department Crime Lab was unable to determine whose DNA it was. Could it be Grant?

 

When questioned at trial, an analyst for the crime lab said, “No conclusions can be made regarding Lydell as a possible contributor.” 

 

“So in that circumstance, you could not exclude him from being a potential contributor to that DNA?” prosecutor Gretchen Flader asked.

 

“Correct,” the analyst said.

 

Once the state rested its case, Still called Raul Rodriguez to testify, a man who gave Grant an alibi that proved his innocence. Rodriguez told the jury of how he and Grant met and recounted their night. And no point, Rodriguez told the jury, did he ever see any blood on Grant’s clothing or shoes and never saw him acting suspiciously.

 

During the prosecutor’s questioning, however, Rodriguez struggled to remember specific details of the night. He couldn’t recall exactly what time he arrived in Houston from Austin, how long it took to drive to the bar from his hotel, and how many bars he and Grant visited before leaving for the club. Unlike the state’s witnesses who were so confident in their testimony, Flader was able to cast doubt on Rodriguez’s memory of the night.

 

“You would agree with me that it’s difficult for you to estimate the time since it was two years ago?” Flader asked him.

 

“Yes,” Rodriguez said.

 

In his closing argument, prosecutor Aaron Burdette told the jury, “If he’s not guilty of murdering Aaron Scheerhoorn, then why does all the evidence say he is?”

 

After a three-day trial, the jury found Grant guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

GRANT SPENT MUCH of his sentence in the Michael Unit, an all-male prison lost in the outskirts of East Texas near the Trinity River. Grant had little knowledge about the law when he first arrived in prison. While he spent the early months angry he might spend the rest of his life locked away, he spoke with other prisoners working to prove their innocence. He immersed himself in the prison’s law library, studying for hours each weekday dissecting his case, looking for any morsel of evidence or wrongdoing that could set him on a path to freedom. He honed in on the DNA. If Scheerhoorn could be identified, why couldn’t the other set of DNA?

Meanwhile, he reached out to innocence organizations throughout the United States. “Here I am, an innocent man who has been wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a crime I did not commit, but the truth is out there, and I wait for the day for it to be discovered,” he wrote in a letter to the Innocence Project of Texas. Months passed, and then he got a letter.

Lydell still carries the Bible he received on his first day in prison.

(Photo: Matt Keyser)

The Innocence Project of Texas receives thousands of letters each year from prisoners claiming their innocence. It’s a tedious process sorting through those that have strong innocence claims and others from prisoners looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

 

Michael Ware has spent 30-plus years as a lawyer helping free more than 30 innocent people from prison—both as a defense attorney and prosecutor—though he doesn’t like to quantify such things. As the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, which he co-founded in 2006, he loves fighting for the underdog, and when it comes to criminal defense, “I don’t care who your client is, the client is always the underdog,” he says. If there’s one thing he’s learned fighting for the wrongfully imprisoned, it’s that “it is so much easier for the system to convict a completely innocent person than it is to exonerate a completely innocent person.”

 

Ware is a passionate presence in the courtroom. During a bail hearing for Grant in October last year, he calmly paced around the front of the courtroom in a black suit and pinstripe tie, his graying hair parted to the side, and made small talk with people in the galley. But when arguing Grant’s case for a bond before the judge, Ware was strong and fierce and didn’t shy away from calling prosecutors out on their “bullshit” when they asked Grant’s bond be denied.

 

Ware was skeptical of the eyewitness testimony in Grant’s case, but it was the DNA that piqued his interest. At the time of Grant’s trial, the Houston crime lab analyst couldn’t decipher the second source of DNA found under Scheerhoorn’s fingernail. Could it be identified with the vastly improved technology of today?

 

Ware got the original test results from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. With the help of Dr. Angie Ambers, a lead forensic DNA consultant, they sent those results to a company in Pennsylvania called CyberGenetics, which uses a DNA software known as TrueAllele. Unlike in 2010 when crime labs relied on analysts to interpret DNA data, TrueAllele uses a computer algorithm to separate DNA mixtures it can compare to another person’s DNA. It then produces a statistical probability of a match between the DNA samples. The software has been around for 20 years and has helped free at least 12 people across the U.S., as well as help solve dozens of other violent crimes by putting a name to an unknown DNA profile. Similar software now exists at crime labs throughout the United States, including at the Houston Forensic Science Center, formerly the Houston Police Department Crime Lab.

 

Not only did TrueAllele separate the mixture, but it also showed with alarming certainty that Grant’s DNA wasn’t present. Ware felt he had the evidence to free Grant, but went one step further. With CyberGenetics’ help, the unknown man’s DNA profile was uploaded into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national DNA database that holds profiles of thousands of convicted felons from across the country. To Ware’s surprise, the unknown profile came back with a name: Jermarico Carter.

IT’S NOT THAT Gerald Doyle or Randi Capone didn’t find the new evidence compelling, but they weren’t ready to immediately declare Grant a free man. The two attorneys work for the Harris County district attorney’s conviction integrity division, a four-person team that investigates innocence claims for one of the largest district attorney’s offices in the nation. After learning about the new evidence in Grant’s case, they questioned if there was a valid reason why Carter’s DNA was found under Scheerhoorn’s fingernails.

 

They reached out to the Texas Forensic Science Commission and spoke with DNA experts to learn more about the validity of the TrueAllele software that led to Carter. If a murder case against Carter went to trial, prosecutors might have to defend the software and the CODIS match before a jury. They also had their own DNA testing done at the state’s crime lab, which confirmed that Grant’s DNA wasn’t found in the sample. With the help of the Houston Police Department, Doyle and Capone shifted their focus to Carter.

Carter, they learned, matched the killer’s description: a Black man, 6-feet 2-inches tall, weighing 226 pounds, who was 32 years old when Scheerhoorn was killed. He also had a history of arrests in Harris County dating back to 2005 for possession and burglary. One particular arrest gave them pause: Months before Scheerhoorn was killed, Carter was arrested for attempting to swallow crack cocaine blocks away from where Scheerhoorn died.

 

Meanwhile, Sgts. Richard Rodriguez and Mike Burrow with the Houston Police Department reviewed old police reports, witness statements, photo lineups, and crime scene photos. With the help of the FBI, Rodriguez learned that Carter was in the area around the time of Scheerhoorn’s murder.  Shortly after, Carter moved to Atlanta—where, Rodriguez found, he’d been arrested for stabbing his roommate four months later.

 

At the same time, investigators searched Grant’s cell phone. They found text messages and calls to Raul Rodriguez. They found no evidence that Grant had any connection to Scheerhoorn, and

A mugshot of Jermarico Carter after a 2007 arrest. (Courtesy: Houston Police Department)

certainly nothing that proved Scheerhoorn owed him money for drugs. The deeper Sgt. Rodriguez dug, he would later say, the more he realized “this is something we really need to look into.”

With the case against Carter growing, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg agreed to Grant’s release on bond. On Nov. 26, two days before Thanksgiving, Grant walked out of the Harris County Jail to those “free at last!” chants after posting $100,000 bond.

 

Meanwhile, Bob Warner, an investigator with the conviction integrity division, learned Carter had regularly been pawning things at an Atlanta pawn shop. Carter also had an active arrest warrant for a probation violation.

 

Three weeks after Grant’s release, Carter was arrested. Sgts. Rodriguez and Burrow flew to Atlanta to question him about Scheerhoorn’s murder. Initially, Carter denied he had any involvement. But Burrow pressed further. The investigators knew he was in the area the night of the murder and he moved to Atlanta shortly after. And, they told him, his DNA was found under Scheerhoorn’s fingernails—could he explain that? Carter broke. He told them, according to court records, that Scheerhoorn was walking near him that night and told him to get out of the way. Scheerhoorn then hit him twice on the head, Carter told the investigators, before spitting at him.

 

Carter told them he and Scheerhoorn started fighting in the street when Scheerhoorn pulled out a knife and was likely stabbed during the scuffle. When Carter got control of the blade, he told the detectives that Scheerhoorn ran away towards Blur Bar and he followed. Once in the dark parking lot near the bar, Carter told the detectives that he only punched Scheerhoorn a couple of times but never stabbed him. He told them he didn’t know what happened to the knife and admitted to fleeing to Atlanta shortly after the murder.

 

Carter was charged with Scheerhoorn’s murder on Dec. 21, 2019, nearly nine years to the day Scheerhoorn died. He’s currently held in the Harris County Jail on $150,000 bond. On the same day she announced the charges against Carter, Ogg agreed to drop all charges against Grant. She said she would fully support his exoneration. 

Lydell stands with his lawyers, Chauntelle Wood (middle) and Mike Ware (left), during a news conference in December 2019 after the Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced she was dropping murder charges against him. (Photo: Matt Keyser)

IT’S BEEN NINE months since Grant’s bond release. In the eyes of the criminal justice system, he’s still a convicted murderer despite overwhelming support from the district attorney’s office, the police department, and the trial court in which he was convicted. In Texas, however, none of that matters; the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals has the final say on all innocence claims.

 

In early January when State District Judge George Powell sent Grant’s case to the appeals court, many who supported his innocence believed it was such a clear wrongful conviction that he’d likely be the fastest exoneree in Texas history. Instead, it’s sat before the appeals court for eight months. The court has made two requests since then: one for Carter’s recorded confession to the Houston Police Department; the other, in July, sending it back to Powell’s court for further investigation. The judges asked that the six eyewitnesses who identified Grant give sworn affidavits about his innocence and that Powell determine if Grant should receive a new trial. Ware, Grant’s lawyer, said he’s never seen a similar ruling from the appeals court in his career. “It’s not their job to conduct their own investigation. What’s next—go out to a crime scene? This is what straight-edge, straight-forward DNA exonerations look like. It doesn’t look any better,” he told me.

 

Elsa Alcala, a former justice who served on the appeals court for seven years, sent a scathing tweet after the ruling: “The #CCA in TX is the only court in this country that would ignore the overwhelming evidence of innocence to ask the bad ID witnesses a decade after the fact if they are still sure about their bad ID. We desperately need #CriminalJusticeReform in Texas.”

 

The actual innocence ruling by the Court of Criminal Appeals is important for Grant’s case. With it, his murder conviction will be erased from his record and he’ll be eligible for $80,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned. Without it means a longer fight to clear his name.

 

Surprisingly for a man who’s lost nearly a decade of his life, Grant is upbeat and full of life. He speaks with a positive outlook that focuses on the future, not the wrongdoings of the past. He says he holds no anger towards the people who helped lock him away. “This is something that was meant to happen for me in my life,” he says, “to get to where God wanted me to be in life, to receive the blessings to have him.”

 

On a late afternoon this past January before the novel coronavirus pandemic began spreading throughout Houston, Grant stepped into Chief Art Acevedo’s office, who accepted the meeting at the request of the Innocence Project of Texas. The fact Grant was meeting with the head of the police department that locked him away wasn’t lost on him.

 

After Carter’s arrest, Acevedo released a statement to Grant and his family apologizing “as they waited for justice all these years.” Now sitting next to him at a conference table, the golden sun fading behind the towering skyscrapers, Acevedo told him: “There’s no excuse for putting an innocent person in prison. I always tell my people that the only thing worse than not catching a real murderer is charging the wrong person with that murder. … And when it came out that you were not guilty of the crime you were charged, I mean, saying I’m sorry is the least I can do. But to see you smiling and to see you looking good, to see you realizing you can’t change what’s happened—you control how you respond to it—and you can make a difference in the lives of others now.”

“That’s what it’s about. That’s what I’m going to do right there,” Grant told him.

 

What was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting turned into an hour-long conversation about their faith and the future. Near the end, Acevedo took Grant behind his large wooden desk and showed Grant a letter his father wrote to him after graduating from the police academy three decades earlier. “To the graduate,” it read, “he who perseveres, triumphs.” Acevedo turned to Grant, “And guess what you did?”

 

“I did. I persevered,” Grant said. “I persevered, man.”

 

Acevedo hugged him, “You’re getting a second chance a lot of people don’t get.”

 

Grant smiled, his two dimples piercing his high cheeks, “And I’m very thankful for it.”

Lydell met with Art Acevedo, chief of the Houston Police Department, in early January. The day Grant's charges were dropped, Acevedo apologized to him and his family. (Photo: Matt Keyser)

As his case continues through the courts, Grant mainly keeps to himself and his close circle of family and friends. After his arrest, most of his friends abandoned him, which he calls a blessing today because he knows who truly cares about him. 

 

He spends his mornings in the quiet writing letters to the people he left behind in prison. He carries a box of envelopes, a stack of photos of him on the outside, and a spiral notebook filled with a page of 50-something names of people he writes. He’s not the only one wrongfully convicted, he says, and hopes his letters—his story—give them hope to continue their fight. “You know, helping somebody isn’t always a financial situation or giving somebody something,” he told me one January morning. “Helping somebody is like giving them a word of encouragement, you know, making them feel happy when they’re down, being able to just give them an ear and hear them about what they’re going through.” In a way, too, the letters help keep him grounded, a reminder of how quickly life can be snatched away.

 

After penning a day’s worth of handwritten letters, he drives his red Kia sedan that he bought with money raised by the Innocence Project of Texas to the post office and stuffs them in a large envelope addressed to the prison. Afterward, he’ll sometimes go for a drive and take in the sights of the sprawling city: in awe of the new cars that fill the massive freeways that are surrounded by towering buildings. While most speed by, Grant cruises along, thankful to feel the sun on his skin and for the freedom to take it all in.

HOW THIS STORY WAS REPORTED

Matt Keyser began following Lydell Grant’s case in October 2019, shortly before Grant’s first bond hearing. To reconstruct this narrative, Keyser reviewed thousands of pages of documents, court records, and trial testimony that provided detailed accounts of the events at the time. He spoke extensively with Grant, his lawyers, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and her conviction integrity division. He studied mistaken eyewitness identification, reviewed policies and guidelines, and interviewed experts on its flaws. In January, before the novel coronavirus began its spread throughout Texas, Keyser spent a day with Grant as he went about his everyday life, culminating in a meeting with Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Keyser is an award-winning reporter whose narrative non-fiction work largely focuses on the Texas criminal justice system. In 2017, Keyser was part of an investigative team that won the prestigious Alfred I duPont-Columbia University Award for “TRANSPARENCY,” an investigation into the failures of the Houston Police Department’s body camera program. His work has appeared in publications across the country, including USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News, and KHOU.com. Keyser lives in Houston with his wife, daughter, and their two dogs.