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The Wrong Man

cache 1292486004The case against Nickiolas Jolly fell apart within a month of his arrest for capital murder. But keeping an innocent man in jail 14 months is no big deal in this town.

In August 1997, when they took him to jail, Nick Jolly was 18 years old and had just graduated from Lincoln High School, where his mother and aunt both graduated before him. He was a third-generation Dallasite. His grandfather came here from South Texas to work for the Dallas water department, and his grandmother came from East Texas to work as a domestic. The family had been in the Rochester Park neighborhood, at the bow of Central Expressway and the Hawn Freeway, since the whites left in the '50s.

That August, Nick was finishing up a summer of relaxation after graduating. He had worked at various short-term jobs and was in the process of making up his mind about seeking some more permanent employment or perhaps following his older brother to college. But those possibilities were closed to him on the morning of August 20.

Early that morning, two Dallas police detectives came to the home of his aunt, Phyllis Jolly, on Scott Street in Rochester Park, where Nick had been staying. Sitting in the living room while his aunt listened intently, the detectives told Nick that his friend Tim Garrett had implicated him in a brutal triple gun-slaying that had occurred a few hours earlier and a few blocks away.

"They kept telling me Tim Garrett had said I did all this stuff, but I knew they were lying," Nick says, "because I knew I hadn't done nothing."

Nick is a big young man, with broad shoulders and large hands. When his face closes in a suspicious glower, he looks much older than his 19 years. But when he ranges around the room, sawing the air with his hands while he talks, he sounds like a bewildered kid.

cache 1292486304Phyllis Jolly

Phyllis Jolly, a small, intense woman in her 30s, listened quietly to the detectives' speeches until she was sure she had the drift. Then she tried to cut it off.

"I asked them if they had a warrant," she says.

They did. They arrested Nick for outstanding traffic tickets.

While they were handcuffing him, another detective who had helped coach Nick on a Lincoln High School football team came to the door of the house. "I called out to him, 'Hey, look what they're doing to me,'" Nick says. "'Tell 'em! You know I didn't do nothing like this!' But he just dropped his head."

When 18-year-old Nickiolas Jolly denied he was a killer, his aunt Phyllis Jolly believed him. Then she found a high-powered lawyer to shoot holes in the state's shaky capital murder case against her nephew.

Phyllis Jolly, who had been Nick's surrogate mother during much of his life, followed her handcuffed nephew out to the squad car, then raced back into the house and got busy on the telephone.

From that moment until the case against him finally collapsed, Nick Jolly remained a police prisoner, first in the city jail and then in the Lew Sterrett county jail - for 14 months. Those 14 months behind bars were not an especially unusual amount of time for a prisoner in a capital murder case to wait, without a chance of making bail, for his case to come to trial. Under the current interpretation of the constitutional guarantee of a "speedy trial," some prisoners wait in the Dallas County jail as long as three years.

"He shows the scar where they clamped the cuffs down hard on him. "They said, 'We just let you out for a little bit, Jolly. Now we're taking you back where you belong."

If there is a difference in the Jolly case, it is that the case against him was so obviously weak so early on. Within a month of his arrest, all of the basic facts that eventually destroyed the case against him already had been established by his Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer, Arch McColl. But even McColl says the refusal of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office to back away from a patently lousy case was far from unusual. Instead, McColl says, it's a posture that was typical of then-District Attorney John Vance, who decided not to run for another term in the November election.

Henry Wade, the legendary prosecutor who preceded Vance, culled his cases carefully - an important factor in his famously high conviction rates. But McColl and other criminal lawyers say Vance took a lazier, politically safer, and much crueler route. Abetted by his hands-off chief assistant Norm Kinne (Kinne announced he would resign after Vance decided not to run), Vance told his staff to indict anything and everything in the in-box. That way, no one could accuse him of being soft on crime.

"When Hugh Lucas used to be in charge of the grand jury under Henry Wade," McColl says, "he was directed by Wade to get rid of questionable cases or to recommend at least to the grand jury that they not indict cases. It seemed John Vance's philosophy was to try almost everything. It was much more difficult under his regime to get a fair hearing in the grand jury."

cache 1292489504Arch C. McColl, III

After his arrest, Nick Jolly spent the next year and two months in a two-bunk cell in a 30-man tank in the North Tower of the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, in a high-security area where they keep the home-invasion killers, rapists, armed robbers, and other dangerous prisoners. For most of those 14 months, he either talked on the pay phone to his family or lay on his bunk trying to control the pounding pressure inside his head. He tried not to get drawn into conversations, not even to hear the jail-house nonsense around him - the crazies who would just make him crazy too, if he talked to them, the snitches who only wanted to sell him out.

"I only talked to one guy," he says. "The rest of the time, I just stayed up in my bunk and read my newspaper or read my Bible. I didn't talk to nobody - just stayed to myself. There's so much pressure on you, hearing all this stuff in jail. People are telling you about your case or your family, and you can't get out and do nothing about it. I just stayed to myself. It just hurts to be locked up. It's like when your mamma gives you a whupping. You can take it, but you don't want to."

"If I was guilty of a crime, I could accept being locked up, because I know every man has to accept the consequences of his actions. But I wasn't guilty."

For those 14 months, the Dallas District Attorney's Office steadfastly insisted that Nick Jolly was a liar and a killer. This was their version of events:

The prosecutor told the grand jury that just after 3:45 a.m. on August 20, 1997, Nick Jolly and two other men kicked in the front door of a home at 2521 St. Clair Street in Rochester Park and rushed inside to rob the inhabitants.

The three robbers came in with guns pointed and white nylon panty hose pulled down over their heads bandit-style. They rounded up the six people inside - a middle-aged mother, her two teenage sons, her teenage daughter, her daughter's boyfriend, and her daughter's infant daughter - and ordered them to sit on the floor in the living room.

The robbers dragged the daughter, 18-year-old Helena Ceaser, into another part of the house and put a gun to her baby's head. By that time, prosecutors claimed, Helena and her brother, James Ceaser, 16, had recognized two of the robbers as their lifelong acquaintances, Nick Jolly and Tim Garrett. In spite of the disguises, according to prosecutors, Helena and James were able to positively identify the men by their voices and body language.

The robbers ordered the older Ceaser son, Corey, 19, and the boyfriend, Russell Dixon, 23, into a bedroom. Police investigators said the two young men may have tried to fight back in some way when they were hustled off to the bedroom. When they resisted, the robbers opened fire on them with a revolver and a semi-automatic. There is some suggestion in various police accounts that Dixon, the baby's father, may have seen one of the robbers putting a gun to his baby's head and may have tried to break out of the bedroom just then. Nick Jolly, according to the police version, pumped bullets into the bedroom, riddling Dixon and Corey Ceaser with holes.

The mother, Linda Banks, 41, leapt up and tried to run for it. She made it into the bathroom and was able to lock the door and jump into the bathtub for cover, but according to police, one of the robbers, either Jolly or his alleged accomplice, Garrett, fired multiple shots through the door and through the tub, slaughtering Mrs. Banks where she lay crouched for cover.

Mrs. Banks and her son were dead on the scene. Russell Dixon died hours later at Parkland hospital.

That left three people unscathed. Helena Ceaser said she had pleaded with the killers to spare her and her baby. She said Jolly had signaled to her that she and her daughter would not be killed. Her younger brother, James, also was spared. He said he had been able to wriggle out of the killer's view before the shooting began.

Certain beyond any doubt that Nick Jolly and Tim Garrett were two of the three intruders who slaughtered her family, Helena Ceaser identified them to police, according to the DA. The next morning, detectives went to the house of Phyllis Jolly and arrested Nick for traffic tickets. Later that week, he was charged with multiple capital murder. Garrett, a parole violator, fled Dallas when he learned he was wanted in the killings and remained at large for several months before finally returning to Dallas and turning himself in. Nick Jolly was then and remains convinced that Tim Garrett is as innocent as he.

In the first week of December 1998, after Nick Jolly had been in jail for 14 months, on the day his trial was to begin, he was called out of his cell and informed he would be going home. There would be no trial. The charges against him and Garrett had been dropped.

Garrett was not so lucky. By fleeing, he had violated his parole. He went back to state prison.

In the days after the cases against Garrett and Jolly were dropped, the local media engaged in a typical news-business tango. KDFW-Channel 4 did some hard-hitting pieces on the case, pointing out that, after more than a year of saying he had the killers behind bars, the DA had suddenly folded his hand.

Soon after, The Dallas Morning News weighed in with some thinly disguised versions of the official cover story. First Assistant District Attorney Norm Kinne gave an interview to the Morning News that seemed to suggest he had been forced to release two murderers because the chief witness against them, Helena Ceaser, had inexplicably refused at the last moment to cooperate with the prosecution. Assistant prosecutor Robert Dark, whose case it was, then gave his own angry, confusing interview to the News, in which he accused Ceaser of being involved in the murders of her own mother, brother, and boyfriend and vowed some day to bring her to justice.

From the beginning, the Morning News had covered the Jolly-Garrett case as a regrettable but typical story of black-on-black crime. On the day after the murders, the paper told its readers, "Police have heard accounts that there could have been a rivalry between the Jolly and Banks families over where they could sell marijuana."

A Morning News reporter set the scene: "Words painted on a boarded-up doorway across the street read, 'Stop the Violence,' but the killings told another tale of the dilapidated Rochester Park neighborhood, where residents and police say drug dealing and neglect are apparent."

Certainly the case Dark presented to the grand jury was based on the same cultural assumptions that informed the Morning News' coverage: This was a scene from the black inferno - a tale of monsters killing their own kind.

Now, with the Jolly case in shards at their feet, in a week when they had been forced to send Nick Jolly home after more than a year in jail, the authorities were making it obvious this was another chapter in the same sordid history. This is what you get. They won't even stand up for their own dead. What can we do?

What was entirely missing from the DA's version and barely visible in the coverage of the News was the other distinct possibility: that the case against Nick Jolly had been stupid from the beginning, that Norm Kinne and Robert Dark had been either foolish or without conscience in pursuing it, and that the real reason Kinne and Dark had been forced to fold their cards and send Nick Jolly home was that Nick Jolly finally got lucky and got himself a good lawyer.

"I'm not going to tell you that Nick is a saint. He will admit that he has sold a little marijuana. He's gotten into small trouble, like any kid his age in South Dallas. But he's not a killer."

Nick Jolly's mother, Vickie Goodson, lives in the Oak Hollow apartment complex near the intersection of Elam Road and the Hawn Freeway in southeast Dallas. If there is a spectrum in southern Dallas County, the Oak Hollow apartment complex, called "New Jack City" by its residents, is at the bad end. A sprawling, battered two-story complex with mansard roofs and dirty brick walls, its architecture might be described as Early-'70s Gone-to-Hell.

It's a free country, and there are a lot of choices in Dallas for places to live, even for cheap apartments. Vickie Goodson, like most of the residents of the Oak Hollow Apartments, has her reasons for being here.

On a recent weekday afternoon, several places that looked very much from the outside like drug houses were in open operation. Surly "good eyes" stood at the stoops with arms cloaked inside baggy overcoats, scanning the busy action in the parking lots. Cars pulled in and out of parking spots like traffic in front of a 7-Eleven store. A majority of the wary customers rushing in and out between the guards were black, but many were white and suburban-looking. A frequent visitor said, "Last time I came here, I had to wait to get back out to my car because these guys were out on the parking lot having an AK fight." It doesn't really matter where you're from: This is where serious IV drug use brings you.

Whatever her own struggles may be, Vickie Goodson is intense about her hopes for her sons. She insists all of her three sons are headed toward the other end of life's possibilities. "Both of my older boys graduated high school, and my baby is still at Lincoln, just about to finish," she says.

The other end of the spectrum in southern Dallas is the home of Vickie's sister, Phyllis. It's a small, tidy, frame house on Scott Street in Rochester Park, just a few blocks from where the murders occurred. Phyllis is a beauty operator with a good job and seniority. Most of the time, Nick and his younger brother, Stanley, 17, who is still in high school, live with Phyllis, their aunt.

In the living room of her house, Phyllis leans forward and speaks clearly to make a point: "I'm not going to tell you that Nick is a saint. He will admit that he has sold a little marijuana. He's gotten into small trouble, like any kid his age in South Dallas. But he's not a killer."

She asked him. He told her he had nothing to do with the murders on St. Clair Street and could think of no reason why he had been named.

She believed him, and she made up her mind to try to persuade prominent Dallas criminal attorney Arch McColl to represent him. McColl, who does not seek or need court-appointed cases, got to know Phyllis several years ago when she worked for him to pay off a legal fee.

Well-known Dallas criminal attorney Arch McColl took on Jolly's case for free after the young man passed a lie detector test.

She says, "If I thought he was guilty, I probably would have tried to get Arch to represent him anyway, just so that I could be sure he would have a fair trial. But I believed he was innocent, and I knew he really needed help. Big help."

Normally the attorney's fees, investigative fees, and other costs in a case like Nick's would come to at least $40,000 before trial. McColl did it for free - pro bono. Over lunch at an elegant private club on the top floor of a downtown office tower, he tried to explain why.

McColl, an Ivy League lawyer with a roster of famous clients and high-profile cases behind him, wasn't looking for work. But something in this case stirred him.

"I asked Phyllis, 'Did he do it?' And she said he was innocent."

But are lawyers supposed to ask that question? Between the soup course and the arrival of the salad, he ponders.

"Well, normally what I ask a client is more along the lines of, 'What do the police think?' or 'What do they know?'" He shrugs and smiles. "But I was being asked to do this for free."

Jolly had been provided with a court-appointed attorney. McColl thinks the appointed lawyer was already doing a good job for Nick Jolly. Phyllis Jolly has a different take.

"The court-appointed lawyer was OK. He was a nice guy and all like that. But I knew Nickiolas needed a fighter."

After being assured on Phyllis Jolly's solemn vow that her nephew was an innocent man, McColl went to the jail and met with Nick himself. "I liked him," he says over the salad course. "Seemed like a nice kid."

With the aunt's vow and his own opinion now in hand, McColl decided next to bring in Eric Holden, one of the nation's top polygraph operators. Nick got on the box and swore he was innocent. According to Holden, he passed.

"So I had three things, none of which necessarily meant anything at all," McColl says over coffee. "His aunt said he was innocent. I liked him. And he passed the polygraph."

He took the case.

Lawyer and former state District Judge Larry Baraka handled the defense for Tim Garrett, Jolly's alleged accomplice. Baraka noted a major discrepancy in police accounts of the murders: The initial report describes the attackers as "unknown suspects."

David WellsDavid WellsBy then, Garrett's lawyer, Larry Baraka, already had brought in David Wells, a private investigator. Wells, a hulking man given to open collars and Western boots, operates from the offices of his bail-bond agency in South Dallas. He worked for Royce West when West was representing Dallas Cowboys football player Michael Irvin on drug charges. Wells was a constant and intimidating presence at Irvin's elbow during the trial, able to discourage many reporters from approaching Irvin in the corridor with pesky questions just by staring at them.

"I told the Jolly family, 'If your man is innocent, I'll find out. But if he's guilty, I'll find that out too,'" Wells says.

One of the first things Wells did - something the police almost never do in South Dallas - was walk around Rochester Park and ask people if Nickiolas Jolly was the kind of person capable of kicking in a door and filling a family full of bullets.

"Everybody said no," Wells says in the back office of his bond agency.

Rap videos are playing softly on a television set at the far end of the room. A framed portrait of a black Jesus rests on the floor, propped against the wall.

"So I had three things, none of which necessarily meant anything at all. His aunt said he was innocent. I liked him. And he passed the polygraph."

If people in the 'hood say no, that means something to Wells. "Usually, if it's a bad guy, sooner or later somebody's going to take you aside and say, 'Hey, I saw this guy do this or that,' or, 'Yeah, he's into some bad things.' But everybody who knew Nick Jolly just said no, that's not him. That's not Jolly."

Wells, for one, doesn't see racism, necessarily, in the fact that Nick Jolly got locked up for 14 months.

"Anytime you have three people dead and the witness IDs the guy as the one who did it, he's going to be in jail. That's just how it is."

But he's willing to concede that there probably is a split, a divergence, a difference in the way the police and the DA approach a case when the defendant is an African-American male from South Dallas, and the way they deal with it if the defendant is a socially connected white kid. "It's probably easier to get a doubt in their minds if it's not the black kid," he says.

Wells did more than gather personal impressions. By that point Helena Ceaser was the only ID witness against Jolly. Her younger brother, James, had been dropped by the police and the DA for unexplained reasons.

In the early versions of the crime, police had down-played the suggestion that people in the Banks-Ceaser house might have been drug dealers. Helena Ceaser was described as having a "clean" record. But Wells turned up a very different picture. Nick Jolly was the one with the clean record, with no prior history of anything more serious than traffic tickets. Helena Ceaser and her dead brother, on the other hand, had a reputation in the neighborhood as mid-level drug dealers.

Certainly there was an obvious question that might have leapt to the minds of the investigators, including assistant DA Robert Dark: If Helena Ceaser was a drug dealer of some kind, and if the people who broke into her house and murdered her loved ones were drug dealers, and if she did, in fact, have some notion who they might be, why on earth would she name them to the police? Or, more to the point, why would she give the right names?

Why wouldn't an investigator assume that Helena Ceaser would be a whole lot more afraid of the killers than anything or anyone else? Why would an investigator take Helena Ceaser's word at face value for anything?

But the plain appearance of the case is that the DA and the police not only took her word at face value: They probably squeezed it out of her. The minute the case fell apart, when Dark finally was forced to send Nick Jolly home, he told a reporter for the Morning News he thought she was in on the murder and he was going to find a way to prosecute her. If it was that easy for Dark to make a very serious allegation about a person who'd never been charged with a crime in the incident, then isn't it possible the same kind of accusation probably got going almost as soon as the police arrived on the scene?

Come on, Helena. Why are you alive, and they're dead? You know something about this. This is about drugs. This is about you. Give us somebody. Or we'll take you.

So she gave them someone. Nick Jolly. The person she feared least.

The point is, a name was enough. Some black guy from the neighborhood. She named him. Case made. File closed. Lock him up. It was a case made by foreigners - cops and DAs who couldn't walk up and down the street and find out from people what the real deal was. The only people they could talk to were the ones on whom they had official leverage.

Dark angrily denies that's what happened. He insists Helena Ceaser's word and her word alone - that she had recognized this man by voice through white panty hose pulled down over his head - was all the case he needed.

But the other side of Dark's coin, now, is his argument that his case fell apart because Helena Ceaser is a sick killer - as he alleges - involved in her own mom's murder. Isn't there an element here of having it both ways?

"I've talked about this case, and I'm tired of talking about it," he shouts on the telephone. He says the case fell apart because Helena Ceaser and others in the house "were in on it."

"I'm convinced," he says, gaining composure. "I wasn't at the time, but now I'm convinced they were in on it. And if the days come when we are able to gather the evidence, we'll argue that in court."

The day the case fell apart, Channel 4 got to Helena Ceaser, once in the courthouse and once in a friend's back yard in South Dallas. She angrily denied in both interviews that she was in on the killings and called Dark a liar. Dark said she had failed to show up for numerous appointments and was unwilling to testify against Nick Jolly in court. In both interviews, she insisted she was ready to go to court and testify against Jolly anytime Dark wanted her to.

Since then - perhaps unsurprisingly, after Dark accused her of murder on TV - Helena Ceaser has vanished. Friends in the projects and people at New Jack City, where she sometimes hung out, said just before Christmas that nobody had seen her in weeks.

The same street talk that said Nick Jolly wasn't the killer paints Helena Ceaser as a very unlikely suspect as well. Gossip and her own arrest for drug-dealing months after the murders indicate that she and her brother and boyfriend probably did sell marijuana. Jolly's mother, Vickie Goodson, points out that in that trade lots of bad things can happen, especially if a person comes up short. But a conspirator in her own mother's murder? Goodson thinks the much more likely story is that Helena was as much a victim as anyone.

Private investigator David Wells went door to door in South Dallas, inquiring whether Jolly was the type of man who'd slaughter a family. "Everybody said no," Wells says.

Maybe she did know something. Maybe there was an element of truth in her story: Perhaps she did guess or see who it was. But whatever she knew, she was probably afraid to tell it to the cops.

The fact is that Dark's case against Nick Jolly was already hopelessly flawed and headed for certain defeat in court long before he decided he had a problem with his main witness. For one thing, Arch McColl, the Ivy League lawyer with the fancy downtown address, was doing what the police and the DA wouldn't do: He was out there in Rochester Park day after day, just like David Wells, walking up and down the street button-holing people.

"No, normally that's not something I do," McColl says. "But the court only allows $500 for investigation, and I was sure that had already been spent by the court-appointed lawyer. So we were dependent on our own resourcefulness. The first priority was to get to know people who knew him."

McColl's gumshoe efforts were productive. One by one, day by day, with Phyllis Jolly's help, he came up with witnesses who had seen Nick Jolly the night of the murder. They saw him shambling home drunk after an evening of drinking beer and cognac on the street with his friends, two hours before the murder took place, and falling asleep on a bed in his mother's house at New Jack City, miles from the crime scene.

Vickie Goodson signed a sworn statement and passed a lie detector test affirming that her son had spent the night at her apartment. Other witnesses saw him in the morning when he reluctantly dragged himself out of bed with a whopping hangover to drive his younger brother to school in his aunt's car.

McColl found witnesses who said they had heard Helena give police information on the night of the murder that was in conflict with the story that appeared in later police reports. He found witnesses who said they had heard her say the shootings that night "didn't go down right."

Dark's case against Nick Jolly was already hopelessly flawed and headed for certain defeat in court long before he decided he had a problem with his main witness.

McColl took all of his witnesses to the polygraph expert. They all passed.

Phyllis Jolly laughs when she recalls how obsessively McColl worked on Nick's case. "I'd look out my window, and there he was, walking up and down my street, talking to people. He'd call me all the time. Sometimes I had to say, 'Arch, just relax a little bit and calm down.'"

In the meantime, McColl was giving close scrutiny to the state's own evidence in the case, and he was finding significant problems with Helena Ceaser's version of the story - or what the police said was her story.

By the time Dallas police detective Jesus Trevino took his oath at the first major pretrial hearing on September 2, 1997, the story he told the court was that Helena and her brother James had instantly and clearly recognized Nick Jolly as one of the shooters.

"As far as their faces, which appeared distorted through the stocking, no," he testified. "But as far as knowing the person and their behavior, their build, their mannerism, their voice, there was no doubt in their mind."

Under cross-examination by McColl, Trevino testified that there had been no discrepancies in Helena's reports and statements to police. But in fact, Trevino was giving the court a much stronger case for a positive ID of Nick Jolly than seemed to emerge from the first reports filed by the police themselves.

In the initial police report from the scene, Trevino and his partner had carefully noted for the record that "unknown suspects forced their way into the residence." The impression that no one knew or admitted knowing who the robbers were mirrored what Helena had said in her initial 911 call, according to a transcript of that 3:51 a.m. conversation:

Helena: "Do y'all got an ambulance and police on the way, 'cause my brother and them is dead. I think they's dead."

911 operator: "OK, where is this at, ma'am?"

Helena: "2521 St. Clair."

911: "What happened?"

Helena: "These dudes, they just broke up in our house."

911: "Shot 'em or what?"

Helena: "Huh?"

911: "They shot 'em or what?"

Helena: "See they pulled us out of the bed. They put a gun to my baby's head. My baby, I, we, we ran, and my brother and them tried to, my brother and my boyfriend tried to...stop 'em, and they shot both of 'em. I don't know if they dead or not. I'm scared to go back in the house."

911: "Ma'am, we'll get somebody out there, ma'am."

Helena: "Thank you ma'am."

Larry Baraka, Garrett's attorney, was especially tough on this point: If Helena and her brother were certain at the scene who had just shot their mother, their brother, and the father of Helena's baby, why would the detectives have described the attackers as "unknown suspects" in their report that night? And why wouldn't Helena Ceaser have named Jolly and Garrett in the 911 call?

James Ceaser, whom the police initially had painted as an ID witness against Jolly and Garrett, seemed to fade further from the official case with every passing day, amid rumors on the street that he had changed his story several times about where he was that night, what he saw, and when and how he had escaped.

The DA had not one shred of physical evidence to tie Nick Jolly to the scene. Extensive fingerprint searching and crime-scene investigation had failed to turn up a single print, a hair, a shoe-print, anything to put Jolly at the killing. The DA, meanwhile, was dragging his feet, refusing to obey court orders to allow McColl to see several key pieces of forensic evidence police had gathered, all of which McColl suspected would help to prove his client's innocence.

It was a trash case. Helena Ceaser's word was worthless. Arch McColl would blow her off the stand in about 15 minutes. He would summon a raft of objective alibi witnesses who had passed polygraph tests, all of whom would put Nick Jolly miles from the murder scene that night. There would be no physical evidence.

Robert Dark didn't have a case. He says his case fell apart because Helena Ceaser wouldn't testify. His case might have been a little better if she didn't testify. It wasn't a case. It was a joke.

But no one would admit it. McColl made two serious runs at getting Nick out of jail before his trial. By September 15, less than a month after the murders took place, McColl had prepared a "presentation to the Dallas grand jury" outlining all of the major flaws and discrepancies in the state's case. But McColl, as the defense attorney, was not allowed to enter the grand jury room and had to depend on Dark to present his booklet of affidavits and arguments to the grand jurors.

cache 1292496704"I'm not sure they ever saw it," McColl says.

Later McColl argued all the way to the appeals court for a reduction in Nick's bail below the prohibitive level of $500,000, where it had been set. His argument, based on a body of evidence that had grown even stronger in Jolly's favor, was that Jolly was not likely to make his own strong case bad by running. But Dark would not back down from his insistence that the case against Jolly was viable, and Jolly stayed in jail.

The motion for bail reduction was filed in October 1997, but many long months dragged by before the appeals court finally turned down the request. During that time, Nick's frequent collect calls from the jail pay phone to speak to his aunt, his brother, his girlfriend, and his 7-year-old nephew became less and less frequent.

"We had phone bills like $600 and $800 a month," Phyllis says. "But I wrote to Nick and said, if it's the money, please don't worry about it. We just have to hear from you. We have to hear from you."

At the other end of the living room of Phyllis Jolly's house, listening to her tell the story of the months when he didn't call, Nick drops his head and shakes it slowly back and forth. "It just got to where it was so bad in there, talking to people outside just made it worse."

Ultimately, the case against him fell apart under its own weight. Robert Dark claims it fell apart because Helena Ceaser failed to show up for key appointments and even for court hearings. She says that's a lie: She told Channel 4 she was ready to testify any day Dark wanted her to.

Whatever the details may be, until the case against him collapsed, Nick Jolly had to lie on that bunk in the 30-man tank in the North Tower of Lew Sterrett for the first 14 months of his adult life after high school and wonder what in the hell had happened to him.

"That's the question I sleep on every night," he says. "I wonder, Why me? She's been knowing me since grade school. Her brother who got killed, him and me were friends. We had never had no confrontations or nothing. We were just friends."

Pacing around his aunt's living room, gesturing broadly with his hands, Nick Jolly says, "When you're a fresh high school graduate, you're just starting to get your thoughts together, your frame of life. And I'm lying up there thinking about it. It seems like the justice system works against every young male minority. They can just take you and do whatever they want to with you."

Just in case Nick Jolly foolishly thought his nightmare ended the day they finally sent him home, the police came around and paid him a little visit a day later. They hauled him out of a friend's car and told him he was under arrest for those pesky traffic violations they'd arrested him on in the first place.

Holding a wrist out tentatively, he shows the scar where they clamped the cuffs down hard on him. "They said, 'We just let you out for a little bit, Jolly. Now we're taking you back where you belong.'"

As soon as he got before a judge, the judge agreed that 14 months in jail probably could be considered more than enough time already served for his traffic violations, and he was sent home again. But the lesson was clear. Whether the case against him was ever good or not, whether he was guilty or innocent, none of that mattered. Now, by beating it, he had pissed off the system.

"I honestly think the Dallas Police Department wants to get me so bad, they would have someone plant something on me," he says. "They got me so scared, if someone tried to break in my house, I'd be afraid to call the police, because they might come and take me to jail. That's why I just stay at home and try to keep to myself."

"I can't get a job. I went to a plant the other day with a friend. They hired him and not me. Later that evening, my name came up on the news again."

"I got the big picture now. The system is dirty. It's corrupt. The Dallas Police Department is dirty, and I honestly think they want to pull me down to their level. But I'm a strong man. Just because the system is corrupt, I'm not going to let it corrupt me."

"I just want people to know how I feel. I feel like I'm an animal, trapped inside a cage. I'm free, but I'm not free."

Article Reprinted with Permission of the Dallas Observer

Article © 1999 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved


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