Greg Ott, Free

The philosophy graduate student who was convicted of killing a Texas Ranger in 1978 has finally been released and is getting on with his life.

July 2004By Comments

Homeward bound: Ott (right) with the author on May 25, just after his release.

Greg Ott had been on my mind since January, when I testified at his parole hearing, but until I saw him on May 25, just after he was released from prison, I had seriously doubted this day would ever come. He had been locked up for more than 26 years. Now he was at the Houston duplex of his attorney, Bill Habern, who has represented him pro bono since 1990. I had been following Ott’s case for Texas Monthly since he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Texas Ranger Bobby Paul Doherty during a botched drug raid at Ott’s house, near Denton (“The Death of a Ranger,” August 1978). I’d trailed him through half a dozen failed parole hearings and had written about him again four years ago (“Free Greg Ott!,” August 2000).

A model inmate, Ott was caught in a web of politics and recrimination, his case one of the most emotionally explosive the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Board of Pardons and Paroles have faced. It made no difference to the Rangers that the fatal shot was unintentional and not an act of cold-blooded murder. Retired Ranger captain Bob Prince, in particular, had made it his mission to keep him locked up. Ott had been approved for parole in 1990 and again in 1999, but each time, the parole board reversed itself at the last minute, buckling under an avalanche of protests orchestrated by Prince.

Now 53, Ott was frailer and grayer than when I’d last seen him, but that glaze of submission in his eyes was softer and livelier. He had already lined up a job as a maintenance man at a shopping center in the Orlando area, near where his sister and elderly parents live. At the time of his arrest, Ott was a brilliant graduate student in philosophy at North Texas State (now the University of North Texas). It pained me to think of him mowing grass and cleaning restrooms, but the prospect seemed to make him happy. “All work is honorable,” he told me in his quiet voice. Ott had done his time without a trace of bitterness or hatred, following orders, accepting guilt. “I strive to be part of solutions, not problems,” he explained.

Ott might still be in prison if two television shows last year—one an installment of A&E’s American Justice series and the other a Court TV special meticulously researched by Catherine Crier—hadn’t championed his cause. Crier, who graduated from the Southern Methodist University law school and has worked as a prosecutor and a judge in Dallas, used her daily show to crusade for Ott’s parole. Her efforts elicited a flood of letters and e-mails to Governor Rick Perry’s office and the parole board, prodding a review of Ott’s status. At the hearing in January, Crier told parole board member Lynn Ruzicka, “If this [crime] had happened today, in 2004, it would probably be prosecuted as manslaughter” (for which the maximum sentence is twenty years). A few months later, Ruzicka, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, approved Ott’s parole and held her ground against protesters. So did parole board member Linda Garcia, a former Harris County prosecutor, who had voted to free Ott in 1999 and cast the second and decisive vote this year.

But Greg Ott wasn’t the only one who had been on my mind. I’d also been thinking of Carolyn Doherty, the slain Ranger’s widow. When I spoke with her a few years ago, I asked how she would feel when Ott was finally set free. A gentle and forgiving woman, she told me that she would be relieved. She would no longer have to join the Rangers’ protest every several years; she could close that chapter of her life, knowing she had done all she could for her husband.

As for Ott, he bears no malice toward Bob Prince or any of the hard-liners who opposed his parole. “I understand esprit de corps, loyalty,” he told me. “They are noble traits. I only wish they would understand I never intended to kill anyone.”

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  • maggie

    Mr. Ott must be a remarkable man indeed to not only accept his guilt but to control any bitter feelings he might have had given the treatment we can probably only guess at. Actually, this 26 years highlights true manhood in Mr. Ott and underlines the lack of, and the spirit of vengeance in Bob Prince. In the end, that vengeance consumed him and seemed more important than sparing the Widow of the slain ranger the yearly pain of his righteous anger. Because in truth, in 26 years, he never once thought of her. He must have been hell to live with (if indeed anyone bothered to continue having a life with him). He has a lot to learn from Mr. Ott, chief among which is that forgiveness frees you and unforgiveness sucks the life and spirit out of you and those around you. He might have learnt by now that a badge does not either a human or a Texas Ranger make.

    Finally, I actually do not believe that it was Mr. Ott’s gun that killed the ranger. I believe some or all of the Rangers know that. Remaining on the HARD offensive year after year, keeps the noise level focused on Mr. Ott and blocks out the sound of their own anger and guilt. Only God knows what happened and only He will judge in the end.

    • walter grant

      when they destroyed the original hole in the door that alone should
      have freed this man,i recieved clemency 27 years ago in il so i do
      know what this man had to go through just to show he was not the
      man they said he was.

  • Corinne

    This article is very “pro Ott,” so I’d take it with a grain of salt that the wife of the deceased Texas Ranger is “relieved” now that he’s out of prison. The facts are that for the previous 14 years this widow spoke out against Ott being released from prison. It’s doubtful that she had a sudden change of heart. She never remarried.

    • cwheeler27

      To be fair, most articles on this subject are probably going to be “pro Ott.” When you know all of the facts of the case, it’s kind of hard to think this guy deserved to be locked up for 26 years. Honestly, based on what was presented at trial, he should never have been convicted. The entire case was bungled from the get go. I take your point about the wife. I doubt the author made up the quote, but perhaps he took it out of context. She likely still wanted him locked up, but was simply saying it would be nice not to have to relive the tragedy every year through the protesting.