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Texas man freed after serving 26 years for killing he calls accidental

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

(Court TV) -- In 1978, a 27-year-old North Texas State grad student named Gregory Ott was convicted of the capital murder of a Texas Ranger. Ott, now 53, has spent almost half his life in jail for what some have called the cold-blooded shooting of an officer of the law.

But many others believe Ott's crime was an accident. Court TV's Catherine Crier, a former Texas state judge and felony prosecutor, worked to bring Ott's complicated story to light and rallied for his parole. On Tuesday morning, after 26 years behind bars, Ott was freed.

At about 8:45 a.m., Ott walked through the doors of a Huntsville, Texas, holding unit to the waiting arms of family members. The former student was now a gray-haired soft-spoken man with thick glasses and a shuffling walk.

"You made it, Bubba," his brother, Bruce, said as Ott gave his father, sister and nephews tearful embraces. "Welcome home."

Ott carried his belongings -- a notebook, toothbrush and other personal items -- in a red government-issue mesh duffel.

It was a Texas Monthly profile in 2000 that first compelled Crier to learn more about Ott, Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisoner #282372. In 1978, according to the article, Ott was an eccentric hippie with a flowing beard and long hair. He was working on a Master's thesis in philosophy, comparing Heidegger's phenomenology with Zen haiku poetry.

In February 1978, Denton County narcotics officers busted a marijuana dealer named James Leonard Baker, who cooperated by giving them names of known dealers. Baker named Ott, a pot-smoking loner, as a "heavy dealer."

According to news reports, police ordered Baker to call Ott and set up a marijuana buy. Ott initially told Baker that he didn't have the amount of dope requested, but when Baker pleaded, Ott agreed to find a way to help his friend. The unsuspecting student was about to become the target of a bungled late-night drug raid.

Some time after 10 p.m., an undercover agent, Ben Neel, bought about 20 pounds of marijuana from Ott, and then suddenly pulled his gun. Ott, who had been robbed on two previous occasions, claimed he had no way of knowing that the man pointing a gun at him was a police officer. When he turned and went for his own gun that was sitting on a nearby shelf, Neel shot at him and missed.

Ott claimed that, in the confusion, he grabbed his .38 and it accidentally discharged, after getting tangled in a beaded curtain. Prosecutors alleged Ott knew Neel was an officer and fired intentionally. A single bullet pierced through a closed entranceway, striking and killing Ranger Bobby Paul Doherty, who was waiting on the other side.

The Texas jury could have given Ott the death penalty, which prosecutors asked for, but opted instead for life in prison, presumably because the shooting appeared to be unintentional. In fact, Ott had no idea that Doherty was on the other side of the door.

In a Court TV investigative documentary, "The Strange Case of Greg Ott," which premiered in December, Crier interviewed the Texan in prison.

"There is absolutely no way that I would intentionally have done this act," Ott whispered. "Not then, not now."

By all accounts, Ott has been a model prisoner since his conviction. In 1982, he risked his life to save a guard who was under attack by another prisoner. In 1994, when Ott was a boiler room attendant, fellow prisoners beat and bound him during an escape attempt, but Ott managed to get free and alert guards minutes before the boiler would have exploded.

When Ott first became eligible for parole in 1990, the Board of Pardons and Paroles received letters from wardens, guards and even the Denton County district attorney who sent Ott to prison, all lending support for his release. And he was granted parole by a three-member panel -- only to have it denied at the last minute when members of the Texas Rangers were tipped off and began a letter-writing campaign.

The Rangers have held sway over the parole board's decision twice, effectively keeping Ott in jail after board members initially consented to his release. When Crier interviewed the slain Ranger's former partner, Bob Prince, he admitted that it did not matter to him whether the shooting was an accident.

"We don't need another convicted cop killer on the streets," Prince said, telling Crier that he believed Ott should have received the death penalty.

In a December 2003 letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Crier asked the statesman to take a closer look at Ott's case and the subsequent actions of the Texas Rangers.

"The Rule of Law is being trampled by a heart-felt but misguided power play for revenge," Crier wrote.

Upon his release this morning, Ott took a moment to thank the individuals who supported him and wrote letters over the years. "To all them I answer. To all them I am responsible," he said.

By Tuesday afternoon, Ott had boarded a plane to Orlando where he intends to live with his sister and be close to his parents who live nearby. But as he was leaving the courthouse this morning, his father handed him a cell phone. Ott held the device awkwardly, saying he wasn't sure how to use it.

"Hello, Mom?" Ott answered. He cried as the words came, "We're out. We're on our way to see you."

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