Man tells US court he was wrongfully convicted of Limerick priest’s murder 40 years ago

Fr Patrick Ryan. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

David Raleigh

A US court has heard evidence in support of a man who claims he was wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Co Limerick priest in Texas 40 years ago.

In 1983, James Reyos was convicted of murdering Fr Patrick Ryan (49), a native of Doon, Co Limerick. This was despite Mr Reyos having an airtight alibi and recanting a drunken admission he had made a year after the murder.

Now, 40 years on, the District Attorney’s office for Ector County, Texas, is supporting Reyos is his appeal to have his murder conviction quashed.

Fr Ryan’s naked, beaten and slashed body was discovered in Room 126 of the Sand and Sage Motel, Odessa, 80 miles from his home, on December 21, 1981.

At the time of his death he was the parish priest of Denver City and Plains, Texas.

He had checked into the motel under an assumed name and address.

Evidence of finger prints found in the motel room, which was thought to have been lost, was recently discovered. It points to three other males being the chief suspects for Fr Ryan’s killing. The three are all dead.

An evidentiary hearing to present evidence of Reyos’ innocence was heard before Ector County District Court late on Friday night Irish time.

A statement released in the early hours of Saturday by Reyos’ attorney Allison Clayton, who is also deputy director of the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX), read: “The hearing today was just the beginning of more than one truly heinous injustices being corrected.

"In my time practicing I have never seen a case like this where the prosecution is fighting in tandem with the defence team.

“Today hopefully marks the beginning of true justice for both Mr Reyos, and Fr Patrick Ryan.

"We look forward to the trial court’s ruling in this matter and certainly anticipate that the legion of followers supporting and advocating for James will be nothing less than a resounding demand for justice to prevail.”

A spokeswoman for IPTX said: “We are now waiting for a recommendation from the district judge on the evidence presented today. It could take up to a few months for the judge to issue his recommendation.

"If he recommends that James be exonerated, it will then go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a final ruling.”

IPTX has said: “James was wrongly convicted of murder 40 years ago and served more than 20 years in prison for thee death of Fr Patrick Ryan in west Texas in 1981. Despite the fact that James could prove he was in another state at the time of the murder, he was found guilty and sentenced to 38 years in prison.”

Reyos, an Apache Native American, initially met Fr Ryan a few weeks prior to the murder while Reyos was hitchhiking.

Reyos, who is gay, claimed that Fr Ryan sexually assaulted him in the priest’s apartment by forcing him to engage in oral sex, a claim the trial prosecutor suggested was a lie and an attempt to slander Fr Ryan.

Two other men testified during Reyos’ trial that Fr Ryan had approached them in a car park “looking for for a young stud to f*** him”.

On the morning of the murder, Fr Ryan gave Reyos a lift to get his car out of an impound lot in New Mexico, however they then parted their ways, according to IPTX.

They say Reyos “established through multiple witnesses, store receipts, and even a speeding ticket, that he was in the area of Roswell, New Mexico at the time of the murder”.

“Texas Rangers verified the information and ruled him out as a suspect. The case went cold.”

IPTX stated: “A year after the murder, while heavily intoxicated on drugs and alcohol, James called 911 and confessed to the murder. Once he was arrested, James immediately recanted. Even with the evidence of his whereabouts at the time of the crime, the State indicted James for murder.

“The day before Fr Ryan’s death, James had visited Fr Ryan’s apartment where Ryan had forced him to engage in oral sex. A forensic psychologist testified at trial that James’ guilt about the incident and his sexuality drove him to a false confession.

“In addition to the confession, the prosecution focused extensively on James’ Apache Native American race and the fact that he was gay. Despite the fact that no physical evidence linked him to the crime scene and no one disputed that it was physically impossible for him to have committed the crime, James was found guilty.

“Jurors at the time said their decision was based on the confession and his ‘characteristics’. (James) was sentenced to 38 years in prison.

“Since his conviction in 1983, legal scholars, the Ector County District Attorney’s Office, the New Mexico Legislature, members of the Texas Legislature and the local Catholic Diocese all shared their belief that James was wrongfully convicted. However, there was not a legal path forward to prove his innocence because all evidence from the case was thought to have been destroyed.

“In 2022, members of the Odessa Police Department (OPD) found fingerprints in their archived files that had been taken from the crime scene and from Fr Ryan’s stolen car and wallet. OPD ran the prints through AFIS, the national fingerprint database, the analysis revealed the identities of Fr Ryan’s killers – individuals with criminal histories who were known to be staying at the same motel at the time of the murder. All of the real perpetrators have since passed away.”

Fr Ryan’s body was repatriated back to his native Doon, Co Limerick.