HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Roynes Dural returned to the University of Hawaii Law School to thank all those who worked to set him free — 16 years after he was wrongfully convicted of child sex assault.
He was welcomed with balloons, cake and an audience of attorneys and law students, all part of the Hawaii Innocence Project.
Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court affirmed a ruling by the Intermediate Court of Appeals that overturned Dural’s 2003 conviction.
Dural spent eight years in prison at Halawa Correctional Facility and Arizona’s Saguaro Correctional Facility for crimes he did not commit.
In 2001, Dural was 27 years old and had a promising military career. He was deployed, on the USS Port Royal, when the accusations were made.
Dural had dated a woman years earlier and she had a teen daughter.
The mother reported to police that the teen had an inappropriate relationship with Dural. That was a lie.
It was later determined the girl was covering up for the 29-year old man she was actually in a relationship with — a man who worked at her elementary school.
In 2002, Dural was indicted. He was arrested when the ship docked at Pearl Harbor.
One year later, in 2003, a jury found him guilty, even though no evidence showed he was having a sexual relationship with the girl, based only on the girl’s word and her mother’s testimony.
He was sentenced to 20 years.
“When I heard the guilty verdict, I hear my wife at the time make a sound and I look back and see her crying with my kids,” Dural said, adding that he was stunned but knew he had to gather himself to survive in prison.
“I didn’t start anything because you could get killed in prison, but I didn’t back down from anything either.”
Just weeks after the verdict, the girl— then 14 years old — married the 29-year old who worked at her school cafeteria.
In 2006, The Hawaii Innocence Project agreed to take his case.
With powerful attorneys now behind him: Brook Hart, Rick Freid, William Harrison, David Hayakawa and others at the University of Hawaii Law School, like Ken Lawson, he once again had faith that he would be exonerated.
It would still take five more years before Dural was granted parole in 2011.
By then, the girl’s mother recanted, sending a letter to the paroling authority that read:
“I had been lied to and (led) to believe that Dural was responsible for a sexual relationship with [the girl]. However I now know for a fact, no doubts whatsoever that Roynes Joseph Dural is innocent of all said claims and charges. [The girl] has admitted that it was NOT Dural but [the school employee] that she was having a sexual relationship with.”
Dural was granted parole.
He recalls flying back to Hawaii in 2012. He was angry, and not wanting to talk to anyone.
“I had my mean mad face on,” but Dural says that didn’t scare a little girl sitting a few seats away. She was about 4 years old and passed him a note.
“It said ‘I love you’, that’s it," Dural said, adding he couldn’t understand why the girl reached out. But that note changed him.
He laminated it and keeps it in his wallet. Every day he looks at it.
In the baggage claim area in Honolulu, Dural saw the girl with her father and told her father that the note instantly made a difference.
“It changed my life. All the rage seemed to go down,” Dural said.
He wishes that he got the girl’s name and her father’s phone number.
Last year, the Intermediate Court of Appeals vacated Dural’s conviction and earlier this month, that decision was affirmed by the Hawaii Supreme Court.
It is now up to the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to decide if they will try the case again or drop the charges.
Despite all that has come to light, a spokesman says they still haven’t decided either way.
Dural has rebuilt a relationship with his family, including his kids, who are adults now.
Dural has a job and wants to help others through the Hawaii Innocence Project.
He says there is still some anger for how he was treated: He lost his military career, missed watching his children grow, but he realizes how lucky he is to have had supporters and people who did not give up on him.