The call came out of nowhere, it seemed, on an ordinary day in November 2022 as dockman Tommy Taylor unloaded cargo at the Port of Houston. 

The man on the other end of the line identified himself as a private investigator. He wanted to discuss an unresolved court appeal Taylor had filed in his drug conviction – in 1995.

“I thought it was a scam at first,” said Taylor, 49. “I thought he was a lawyer and wanted money.”

Taylor, who heard nothing about the appeal for decades, had long since given up on pursuing it. But, with increasing shock, he realized that the investigator was an agent of the Harris County courts, hired to help him do exactly that. 

The call set Taylor, who served 25 years in prison before he was paroled, on a quixotic campaign to hold the justice system accountable for its own failures. He is one of dozens of defendants pursuing criminal appeals that lay dormant in local courts for years, cases that highlight the near-total lack of recourse available to incarcerated people when the wheels of justice fail to turn.

“I’m passionate about truth. I appreciate the system that made me a better man,” Taylor said. “But I want that same system to use the same measuring stick for itself.”

Taylor is one of over 100 defendants who filed criminal appeals between 1994 and 2013, only to see those appeals inexplicably languish in the Harris County courts for a decade or more, a Houston Landing investigation found. The delays led to blistering criticism from judges on Texas’ highest criminal court, one of whom blasted Harris County for a “systemic failure.”

It remains unclear how so many of the appeals, known as writs, fell through the cracks. Incarcerated defendants, who are generally not entitled to legal representation post-conviction, already lack resources to pursue legal challenges; that, combined with inattention by judges, clerks and defense lawyers, likely contributed to the error.

“Why is it that Harris County dropped the ball, and not only dropped the ball, but hid the ball?” Taylor asked. “There are still people in prison with no justice.” 

Of the 100-plus writs, which contest convictions on charges ranging from felony theft to capital murder, only one is older than Taylor’s. By the time Texas’ highest criminal court granted his appeal in March, he had already served the entire 20-year prison sentence at issue. Now, he has legal permission to file a separate, more comprehensive challenge to his conviction, which he expects to do in the coming months. 

Ultimately, Taylor would like to get that conviction overturned. His quest, however, is equally one of principle. 

Tommy Taylor reads in his RV
Tommy Taylor, 49, reads a biology textbook in his RV at Cotton Country RV park in Seminole. Taylor is currently working in the West Texas oil patch working with pipe and paint for NorthStar Energy Service. (Jacob Ford for Houston Landing)

Taylor is sharing his story for “justice and accountability,” he said. “The same thing the judge asked me to be man enough (for) when he passed down that sentence.” 

‘I’m gonna give it to you’

Taylor grew up in northwest Houston, the middle child in a tightly knit family from Acres Homes. As a kid, he dreamed of playing professional football, alternating between strong safety and cornerback on Aldine High School’s championship-winning team. By his senior year, he was a starter, and his performances caught the attention of colleges interested in recruiting him. 

The future looked bright – until it suddenly didn’t. In 1992, Taylor was riding through Acres Homes in the backseat of a friend’s car when a police officer pulled them over for a traffic violation. A third friend, sitting in the passenger seat, began to squirm; he then admitted he was carrying a small amount of crack-cocaine, worth around $5. 

In a panic, the friend dropped the cocaine on the floor of the vehicle. It landed near Taylor’s feet, where the police officer found it. 

“I told him it didn’t belong to me,” Taylor said. “The driver told him it didn’t belong to him, and the guy in the passenger seat told him it didn’t belong to him. So the police officer said (to me), ‘I’ll tell you what. It’s closer to the backseat — so I’m gonna give it to you.’”

The Houston Landing could not independently verify the circumstances surrounding the charges through court records. 

For his friend’s pebble-sized rock of cocaine, Taylor was arrested and charged with felony possession of a controlled substance. Still dreaming of going to college, he asked his friend to accept responsibility for the crime; when the friend refused, Taylor felt he had no choice but to accept the prosecutor’s offer of probation, after which Taylor hoped the charge would be dropped. 

He had escaped prosecution, but his friend’s betrayal left him reeling, and Taylor was even more devastated when the recruitment interest from colleges dried up. He spiraled. He began to smoke marijuana, and had a child in 1993. Then, weeks after his son arrived, a stray bullet hit his head in Acres Homes. He survived, the doctor told him, because he’d been high at the time.

“My trajectory was not going upwards,” Taylor said. “It was going downward, literally downward, into the grave, probably.”

Everything came to a head later in 1993, when police arrested Taylor at the scene of an armed robbery. He had broken into a southwest Houston townhome with a friend, though only the friend had weapons and no one at the home was hurt, according to an appeal Taylor filed later. Taylor hoped those facts and other details of the case, such as the victim’s potential complicity in the robbery, would be enough to exonerate him.

They weren’t. A jury deliberated for 34 minutes and found Taylor guilty. 

A judge sentenced him to prison for 50 years. 

‘You can be anywhere you want’

By the end of 1994, Taylor found himself staring down the barrel of a lengthy prison term. In addition to the robbery conviction, Taylor faced punishment for the drug charge, to which he had pleaded guilty at the urging of his attorney. The judge sentenced him to 20 years in that case, to be served concurrently with the longer term for the robbery.  

For his first several years in prison, Taylor floundered emotionally, overwhelmed by the turn his life had taken. Finally, his mother intervened. She suggested he lift his spirits by reading.

“Believe it or not, you could be anywhere in the world you want to be while you’re in there,” she told him. “Intellectually, you can be anywhere you want.”

Taylor took her advice and immersed himself in literature. He devoured the contents of the prison library, then the books and magazines his mother sent him. He developed a particular affection for Rumi, a 13th-century Muslim poet.

Taylor also tried to appeal both of his convictions. His lawyer, however, made a filing error, failing to include the drug conviction’s case number in the appellate paperwork. After Taylor and his family realized what had gone wrong, a different lawyer for Taylor filed a writ requesting the court grant him permission to appeal the drug case belatedly.

The courts acknowledged receipt of his writ in 1995, but Taylor heard nothing after that. 

“I just thought that I got sucked up in the system and they just done me dirty,” he said. “I don’t have the avenues to go about even trying to rehash something like that, so I left it alone.”

Taylor, whose appeal in the robbery was denied, was released on parole as soon as he was eligible in 2019. He lost his mother while he was in prison, and his son, just an infant when Taylor was sent away, grew up and had children of his own. By the time of his release, Taylor had served all 20 years of the drug possession conviction at issue in his writ. 

Though he still wondered occasionally what had happened to the appeal, he assumed pursuing it would be a lost cause.  

“I always thought about it,” Taylor said. “But I just thought, well, you can’t go against the system.”                                                                                                                                                

‘An almost impossible task’

Taylor’s lost writ, along with dozens of others, resurfaced in 2022 as court officials worked to reduce a case backlog in Harris County, according to an affidavit filed by the Harris County District Clerk’s Office. The district clerk forwarded the writs to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where many were dismissed or outright denied. 

In Taylor’s case, however, judges for the state’s highest criminal court decided to send the writ back to Harris County. The judges ordered the trial court to investigate whether Taylor is legally allowed to continue pursuing his appeal — this time with a deadline for resolution.

Taylor’s is one of over three dozen lost appeals identified by the Houston Landing that were returned to Harris County for further review.

“The situation is extremely troubling, completely unacceptable, and terribly unfair to the applicants who have waited for years for any response regarding their applications,” Judge Michelle Slaughter wrote in response to one appeal filed in 2013. 

Bob Wicoff, chief of the Post-Conviction Writs Division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, said appeals like Taylor’s are less likely to slip through the cracks today because of a law implemented in 2014 that set deadlines for resolving them.

Post-conviction writs are now automatically forwarded to the Court of Criminal Appeals 180 days after they are filed, unless an extension is granted. 

However, when Taylor filed in 1994, that ticking clock did not exist. In many cases — including Taylor’s — the trial court kept the writ indefinitely to investigate the issues raised. Usually, the courts did so with good intentions, Wicoff said.

“The intent of the prosecutor was to keep the case from being sent up to the Court of Criminal Appeals for what was often a quick denial,” he wrote in a memo earlier this year, which he shared with Houston Landing.  

Another reason the writs languished, Wicoff said, is that defendants do not automatically get a free, state-appointed lawyer to appeal their conviction in non-death penalty cases.

Most of the lost cases, Wicoff noted, were filed by the defendants, without the help of a lawyer.

Taylor hired an attorney to file his writ, but did not retain the lawyer indefinitely to pursue the appeal after it was filed – leaving him with little recourse when the system failed to respond. 

“Even now, there are not many lawyers who handle post-conviction writ proceedings,” Wicoff wrote in the memo. “For an inmate confined in prison, to effectively do so is an almost impossible task.”

‘The fault lies in the system’

Today, Taylor splits his time between Houston and Seminole, a small Texas community near the New Mexico border, where he works in oil and gas. He continues to read voraciously, and is currently working his way through Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature.

“I study life,” he said. “Biological life, psychological life, emotional, energetic life. I studied anatomy. That’s what I do. I’m a student of life.”

His attorney, a Harris County assistant public defender, declined to comment on the appeal because he is still reviewing Taylor’s case. 

Taylor’s writ, meanwhile, has attracted attention, largely because of the reproachful opinions the Court of Criminal Appeals issued after they received it. 

Judge David Newell argued that Taylor’s writ deserved to be granted immediately, and slammed Harris County for losing track of so many cases.  

“Whatever else can be said of this situation, the fault lies in the system, not with the parties,” Newell wrote. “It is up to us to sort this out, not them.” 

Taylor said he holds no anger towards Harris County, but wants to shed light on an unjust situation.

“How can I have an open case in the court and not even know about it?” he asked. “I have the right to know (what happened). I’m still a human being. Whether I’m a convicted felon, I’m still a human being.”

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Clare Amari covers public safety for the Houston Landing. Clare previously worked as an investigative reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, where she reported on police use of force, gender-based...