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By the end of January 2015, Larry Driskill was in jail, maintaining he’d been manipulated into a false murder confession by Texas Ranger James Holland.
Driskill’s claims raised a simple question for me: Was he alone?
To answer that question last year, I gathered more than 30 hours of audio and thousands of pages of reports and court testimony from Holland’s career. I discovered that he’d used many of the tactics from the Driskill case — like lies and hypothetical language — in other cases, as well. I wrote to 10 men and women who confessed to Holland, some of whom are still in prison. Many said they were, in fact, guilty of murder — but not all. The most troubling story came from a man named Chris Ax.
He had met Holland right after Larry Driskill went to prison, in 2015. The Ranger had traveled to Gainesville, Texas — a tiny town near the Oklahoma border — to investigate the 1997 murder of Shebaniah Sarah Dougherty. The 20-year-old had disappeared after her shift working at a video store.
Ax was a childhood friend of the victim. Over the course of weeks, Holland focused on him as a suspect, lying about evidence and even taking him to the crime scene to discuss hypothetical scenarios in which he killed his friend. He ordered pizza that Ax had allegedly eaten with the victim in order to revive his memory of the events.
“Almost every fiber of my being was saying, Stay the hell away from this guy,” Ax recalled. And yet, Ax kept meeting with Holland, and eventually he confessed — just like Larry Driskill.
But that wasn’t the end of his story: A crime lab was still testing DNA evidence from Dougherty’s murder.
The fourth episode of “Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry,” called “Memory, Taste and Odor,” describes the case of Christopher Ax, establishing how Texas Ranger James Holland used the same tactics in case after case, even after nationally-publicized exonerations demonstrated how such tactics create a risk of false confessions.
Listen to new episodes each Monday, through the player at the top of this page, or wherever you get your podcasts.Go deeper:
How the outcome of Christopher Ax’s case was covered by the Gainesville Daily Register
Marshall Project reporter Jamiles Lartey on the lasting trauma following exonerations
ProPublica’s Megan Rose on the plea deals that innocent people take
Before we start, a warning that this episode contains descriptions of suicide and violence. Please take care as you listen.
Coming up this time on “Just Say You’re Sorry”:
Chris Ax, a murder suspect, describing the Texas Rangers: [T]hey were everything to me ever since I was a kid. It wasn’t from anything I saw on TV, it was just, to me they symbolized and epitomized Texas.
Larry Driskill, describing his interactions with a defense lawyer: [I]f y’all gonna screw me, let’s just make this as easy as possible. Let’s say five years and let’s be done with this. He said they won’t do that.
Larry Driskill is sitting in his living room in Weatherford, Texas. He has just confessed to murder after spending the last two days being interrogated by Texas Ranger James Holland. But the Ranger didn’t arrest him in the interrogation room. He said Driskill could go home and tell his wife first. He made himself a drink and settled in for a conversation that’s hard to imagine: Telling a loved one, “Hey, I confessed to a murder.” But before he can really start, the deputies arrive, handcuff him and put him in the car.
Larry Driskill: There was a whole bunch of cop cars, trucks and all that [with] red lights on. And the guy that was cuffing me said, “I know you from hauling hay. Don’t think you’re going to outrun me or try to bully me or beat me up, because I’m bigger than you are.” Well, I didn’t try to fight nobody anyway. I just did what they told me to do.
Deputies drive Driskill right back to the sheriff’s office and book him into the Parker County Jail. He’s given one of those classic black-and-white striped uniforms to wear.
Larry Driskill: They put me in a cell by myself. It’s big enough to hold 20 or 30 people in there. But they put me in there by myself because of my job, because I was a licensed jailer for the state of Texas.
Because Driskill previously held a position of power over the other men in the jail, the authorities think he could be a target of violence, which means he is essentially kept in solitary confinement.
Larry Driskill: I think what might have helped me through it was being in the military. Because being a reservist, you’re on two-week duties. So you learned from your military training, and everything else too, that I can do this.
But this wasn’t a two-week Army tour. In fact, two years go by as Driskill starts talking to his lawyer, occasionally attends court, and basically waits to see if his case will go to trial. Every day is pretty much the same until Driskill starts being allowed to mix with other men in the jail.
Larry Driskill: I got where I was going out with the other guys playing handball, but it was awful, weird [to] this day.
Out on the yard, this day in April 2017, he meets a man. We aren’t going to tell you his real name as we don’t want to risk his safety. So we’ll call him John. He was arrested for stealing a lawn mower and then fleeing to Oklahoma to avoid the police.
Larry Driskill: I’m walking around, and he looks at me, and I nod my head and I talk to him for a couple minutes. And all I told him was, “I didn’t do it.”
This is Driskill’s story. But John? He claims that their conversation went very differently. He requested a meeting with the authorities.
Jail official: Let’s go right in here real quick. Your attorney, he’s in the back of the jail right now. Would you like any water or anything?
Jail official: OK.
This is from a video I got of that meeting.
Jail official: I was told that you had some possible information on a homicide. Is that what I understand?
Jail official: OK. You say Larry Driskill, correct?
John: Yes, sir.
John wastes no time launching into the story of what happened when he talked to Larry Driskill out on the rec yard.
John: Larry has a bad habit of discussing his case. So we went to rec and we were sitting there talking and he actually told me that he did do it, and that the DA don’t have enough evidence against him to convict him.
Jail official: OK. What particulars did he tell you about his case?
John: He said [the murder] was in his truck. He did it over $20, and the reason he did it is because he thought she was robbing him.
Jail official: OK. Do you know who she is?
John: No, it was some prostitute.
Jail official: Some prostitute?
This is basically the story in Driskill’s confession: sex worker tries to rob him, he fights back and kills her.
John: He told me that he strangled her to death because he thought she was gonna rob him, because he heard that her boyfriend and her had a history of robbing [men] after they were getting done doing the job.
John then offers to get more details from Driskill
John: I’m sure I can get more from him, because it wouldn’t be a problem.
But the investigator says no — that would effectively make him an agent of the state, which they’re not willing to do. John is released back to the jail and then, pretty quickly, Driskill hears about what happened.
Larry Driskill: A couple days later, they pulled me in and [showed] me what all he said and everything on the video.
Driskill denies ever confessing to John. He’s back out on the rec yard one day, and guess who he meets again.
Larry Driskill: After they showed me the video, they put him back over on our wing like a week later, and he comes out on the rec yard and was talking to me.
He said, “Mr. Driskill, I didn’t say nothing.” I said, “Stop right there.” I said, “I’ve seen the video, I’ve seen everything that you did…so leave it alone right there.” People in prison and jail don’t like snitches. I had some guys that said, “We’ll take care of him.”
Driskill told me he received a warning from the jailers: If anyone goes after John, we’ll blame you.
Larry Driskill: Snitches get stitches. You see people come out of prisons [who] got scars from here to here and that’s because they snitched.
At this point, Driskill has more than just this guy’s fate to worry about. He’s been in jail for more than two years, facing trial for a murder he still swears he didn’t commit. But if the case does go to trial, the jury will hear that he confessed to Texas Ranger James Holland and then the informant might testify too, and say that Driskill admitted guilt again in jail. How do you defend yourself when the other side says you confessed, not once, but twice?
The prosecutors also know this is the state of play, and that a first-degree murder conviction in Texas can lead to decades in prison, if not a life sentence. Driskill is in his 50s.
But instead the prosecutors offer a deal: He can take a sentence of just 15 years. He’d get out before his 70th birthday. All he has to do is plead guilty.
Larry Driskill: I didn’t really understand why all this was happening. And to this day, I still ask God every day, “Why’d you allow this? You know, I didn’t do it.”
From Somethin’ Else, The Marshall Project and Sony Music Entertainment, I’m Maurice Chammah. This is “Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry” Episode 4, “Memory, Taste and Odor.”
When I got this video of the jailhouse informant, it did throw me. Now there were two accounts of Driskill confessing to this murder. Was Holland right to use those interrogation tactics after all? It made me want to look at the bigger picture, not just of Driskill’s case, but of Holland’s track record: Was this an outlier? Or were there other people in Driskill’s situation?
I made a list of Holland’s old cases. I wrote to the people in prison. Some didn’t contest their guilt. One even praised Holland as a “perfectionist.”
As you might imagine, some did say they were innocent. But they didn’t have proof, and it quickly became clear that sussing out the truth in each case would be a major undertaking, if not impossible, which maybe I should have realized, because, well, look how much work Driskill’s case was to unpack.
All in all, I found five cases where Holland lied during the interrogation, and a similar number with “minimizing” talk of self-defense or accidents. There were a few with hypothetical how-would-you-have-done-it type language.
But one case, frankly, makes all of the rest seem pretty tame. The case of Christopher Ax.
Holland spoke to Ax on and off for weeks, and Ax was really good at describing to me what it was like to be on the other side of the Ranger’s tactics. So now we’re going to take a detour into his story, to show just how much Driskill was not alone.
Pretty soon after Driskill’s arrest, in early 2015, Holland travels north to Gainesville, Texas, a tiny town near the Oklahoma border. The sheriff’s office there has reopened the murder of a young woman named Shebaniah Dougherty. People called her by her middle name, Sarah.
In 1997, she was 20 years old, working at a video rental store. She didn’t come home after a night shift. Her body was discovered in a wooded area near an abandoned barn.
Holland studies the case file. He learns that Sarah was known as quiet and religious, not especially social. He reads about the leads they pursued back in 1997. They even hypnotized a witness back then.
There was a suspect during that original investigation, but detectives never found enough evidence to arrest him. Then he died in a car accident.
So now, 18 years later, Holland dives in. He starts looking into other people who knew Sarah, who were considered suspicious for whatever reason. He brings in the same forensic artist from the Driskill case to work with a witness and produce a sketch. They age the face in the image, just like in the Driskill case.
But — and maybe this isn’t surprising — it goes nowhere. There’s no pawn shop owner calling in to say he knows a guy.
At one point, Holland is interviewing Sarah’s sister, and she says [that] Sarah had a crush on this guy named Chris Ax. Then she says [that] Ax left town right after the murder, but now he’s back.
Holland drives over to where Ax is working.
James Holland: What do y’all do here?
Chris Ax: You know what Walmart distribution is?
James Holland: Yep.
Chris Ax: We’re kind of the same thing, only for electrical employment supplies.
James Holland: I gotcha.
Ax says he knows this is about Sarah, and he freely admits he left town in the wake of her murder, because he felt harassed as a suspect. He climbs into Holland’s vehicle.
James Holland: Hey, so tell me, I guess, what you know about Sarah.
Chris Ax: Let me think back.
Ax says, “We were friends. We knew each other’s families.” Remember, this is a small town where everyone knows everyone.
Chris Ax: Well, I knew the family for, well — my family has known that family for as long as I can remember.
James Holland: Yeah.
And not just that. They’d gone on a date once.
Chris Ax: And mom tried to set me up with Sarah one time, and we went out on a date, and it was good, but it was — there was nothing there. It was a friendship-only kind of thing.
Ax agrees to have a longer conversation at the sheriff’s office.
James Holland: You know, I look at this, as murders go, and it sounds stupid. And I know you don’t know anything about the crime scene, but, in a way, I don’t even see this as a murder. I see it more as an accident.
Ax is in his 30s, and much like Larry Driskill he’s a military veteran, now working blue-collar jobs in rural Texas. He had joined the Army as a teenager. He thought it would be a stepping stone to his real goal: to become a cop. And not just any kind of cop.
James Holland: Would you wanna be a trooper? Or you wanna be a [Texas] Ranger?
Chris Ax: Actually, I wanted to be a Ranger.
When I spoke to Ax myself, he told me that, growing up, he actually idolized the Texas Rangers.
Chris Ax: I mean they were everything to me ever since I was a kid. And it wasn’t from anything I saw on TV, it was just — to me they symbolized and epitomized Texas. And Texas was the best state. I mean, it’s the only state that could be its own country, and easily survive. And they epitomized Texas to me. They pretty much ran the show.
Ax tells Holland that in 1997, around the time of Sarah Dougherty’s disappearance, he was living with a roommate a few blocks from the video store where Sarah worked.
Because they were friends, he used to drop by while she was working.
James Holland: When did you start checking up on her at work?
Chris Ax: Maybe a month prior.
A month prior to Sarah’s disappearance.
James Holland: OK.
Chris Ax: Because I went to rent a movie from there, and I’d never been in there before, but I lived close to it, and I was like, I want a movie. So I walked in. Sure enough, she was working. After that, at least every other day, I try to stop in and say, “Hi.”
Holland says he wants to talk about the night Sarah went missing. He asks whether Ax checked on her that night. It was a Friday in March.
Ax told me he was never really sure that he saw her on the exact night she disappeared. But he tells Holland that he did drive by and saw the store was closed, which was unusual.
Holland asks Ax to rewind and go through his day leading up to that moment in detail.
Chris Ax: I started the day the way I always start my day. I wake up, I get dressed and I get in the car, and go get a Dr Pepper.
James Holland: OK.
Chris Ax: That’s been the same since I had a car.
Holland pushes him for more details beyond this daily run to get Dr Pepper. But Ax can’t remember much. Again, this was 18 years ago.
Out of nowhere, Holland drops one of his bombs. He reveals to Ax that he went and spoke to his roommate, the one he was living with around the time of the murder.
This is true. And apparently the roommate’s story is that Ax did go and get a movie from the store and had pizza the night Sarah disappeared.
James Holland: He says that you left the house at 9 o'clock, that you went up there, got movie and pizza and that you were back at, you know, like 10:30 or 11:00.
Ax denies getting a movie and isn’t sure if he had pizza. But there really was a pizza box found in Sarah’s car after her death. So Holland doesn’t let it go.
James Holland: But we know that she ordered pizza earlier that night.
Chris Ax: She did?
James Holland: Yeah. Domino’s.
Chris Ax: Um.
James Holland: And we know how much of the pizza was eaten…with someone else. And then she was saving the rest of it.
Chris Ax: I don't eat Domino’s. If I'd have gotten pizza, it would’ve been from Pizza Hut.
I’m not sure about you, but I don’t find this whole ‘I prefer Pizza Hut to Domino’s’ defense especially compelling.
Chris Ax: I know I’ve had pizza with her, but I don’t believe it was that day. And I think it only happened once, and it was just a fluke accident where I happened to get pizza and saw her working.
Holland asks whether Sarah had ever been to his house.
Chris Ax: No, not to my knowledge. If she had, I wasn’t there.
James Holland: Alright. You keep saying things that are indicative of deception. You’re killing me. You keep…
Chris Ax: Such as?
James Holland: “To the best of my knowledge…” “As far as I can remember...”
Chris Ax: It’s a military thing. When we can’t remember something, we always say, “To the best of my knowledge…” and, “To the best of my knowledge, no, I never saw her that night,” as in, “I don’t remember seeing her at all.”
You can hear how Holland is beginning to sound exasperated with Ax. Just like he was with Larry Driskill.
James Holland: I’ll be straight up with you. You’re either a great suspect or you’re the best witness in the world. It’s one of those two things.
Holland then goes to one of his favorite places: the land of hypotheticals. Remember how he asked Driskill, “How would you have committed murder?” Now he spins out a hypothetical narrative for Ax, drawing on the fact that he went on one date with Sarah, and she had a crush on him. What if it went further?
James Holland: I could see a scenario where you hook up and start going to first base, right? And everything’s going good. And all the signs are there and it’s two thumbs up. And all of a sudden, you know, kind of the psychotic-dad-religious-thing flips in, and this girl just freaks out and goes nuts.
Chris Ax: Well, considering the most I’ve ever done is maybe give her a light kiss — and when I say light, I mean, not even as in, “I like you as a girlfriend.”... No offense, to me that scenario’s completely crazy. Now, could it have happened with somebody else? Yeah, maybe, but not with me.
Holland says he believes him. But he needs to clear him. He says he wants Ax to help him find the real killer.
James Holland: Did you kill her?
Chris Ax: No.
James Holland: I believe you, alright, let me just say that. But I need to clear you, alright, which probably would be good. Would you agree? ... You didn’t kill anyone, right?
Chris Ax: No.
James Holland: OK. So that would feel good … but the second point of this would be: How good would it make you feel to get the son of the bitch who did it?
Chris Ax: Define how good would it make me feel to get him?
James Holland: I’m going to get him, but [you] leading me to the holy grail and giving me the information that I need to get there…
Chris Ax: …that would be good.
And that’s where they leave off.
James Holland: I want to prove definitively that you didn’t do this, right?
Chris Ax: Whatever I can do to help.
To recap this first interview: Holland has left Ax room to believe he’s not really a suspect. But he’s also started to mount the pressure through little revelations. He’s used the tactic known as “minimization,” pushing Ax towards a story where the victim’s death wasn’t really his fault. And there’s the whole hypothetical if-you-did-it line of questions.
The parallels with Larry Driskill are plain to see. But where Driskill had just one night before it all got really serious, Ax goes back to his daily life. But he stays in contact with Holland over the next five weeks.
Chris Ax: Then the texts came in, and the calls were coming in, and he was hounding me day and night while I was at work, when I was off work.
In the beginning, I wanted to help and I was gonna do everything I could to help.
Ax says he even went to Holland’s own office, in a different town, on three separate occasions for interviews.
Chris Ax: And then every time I went to his office, he would always accuse me of doing it.
Maurice: What would he say?
Chris Ax: “I know you killed her.” I mean, straight out, “Just tell me. Confess. It’ll make you feel better.” I said, “I’m not gonna confess to something I didn’t do.”
And he would call me while I was at work and I would say, “I am at work. I cannot talk to you right now.” [He’d say,] “Well, you need to quit your job. I’m more important right now.” His exact words.
Maurice: The way you say it almost makes him sound, out of context, like an abusive partner or something.
Chris Ax: Thank you for being the one to say that, because that is something I have never said, but it is 100% accurate.
Holland also starts to lie, telling Ax his DNA was found on the victim’s socks and shoes. Then, later on, he gaslights Ax, telling him, “I never said that.”
In a way, Holland is playing good cop and bad cop. He’s demanding and intense, but also chummy and persuasive, because eventually Ax says he does remember eating pizza with Sarah, the victim, at the movie store, then going to his house to hang out. He still can’t say, after 18 years, whether this happened on the day she disappeared. But over the course of the conversations, that distinction evaporates.
Holland asks him to take a polygraph. Ax is talking to a lawyer, on the side, who says, “Don’t do it.” But he does anyway. This takes place in late May of 2015, more than a month after Ax first met Holland.
After the polygraph, Ax is told that he has failed.
Chris Ax: I still don’t believe I failed that son of a bitch. If I did, it had to have been for a medical fucking reason.
This recording you’re hearing takes place around 9 p.m. Then there are five hours of intense back and forth: questions, speculation, frustration on both sides.
Finally, Ax relents, and tells Holland that it’s possible he accidentally choked Sarah, but Ax later follows up by saying that may just be the “vivid imagination of a tired mind.” It’s past 2 a.m. at this point.
He also says, “If I am responsible for her death…I’ll never forgive myself.”
This all turns out to be enough to justify an arrest warrant.
A few days later, Ax is at work.
Chris Ax: I went inside. I didn’t even get a chance to get a drink out of my drink. And I had armed men, probably 40 of ‘em. It felt like 40, it could have been 10, walking into that room, grabbing me, slamming me into the counter, saying, “You’re under arrest for the murder of Sarah.”
After Chris Ax is arrested, he stays up pretty much all night with James Holland. The recording of their exchange, which I got from the Cooke County District Attorney’s office, is more than eight hours long. The parallels with Larry Driskill are fascinating. But so is Holland’s perseverance. Ax really puts up a fight.
James Holland: James Holland with the Texas Rangers, June 4th, 2015. Time is 4:24 p.m. Interviewing Christopher Andrew Ax.
Even though Ax failed the polygraph and has been arrested, he’s still maintaining that he doesn’t remember any of this. He doesn’t remember killing Sarah.
James Holland: I don’t want to put someone in prison for the rest of their life. I don’t want someone to look at the death penalty when I know that this is self-defense.
Before Holland had said, “Maybe it was an accident.” Now he tries a theory of self-defense. It’s about an hour into the interview and Ax already sounds pretty hopeless.
Chris Ax: No matter how you splice it, no matter how you want to make it look good, the bottom line is my record that I have worked my entire life to keep clean is fucked.
And then we get another Holland classic you may recall this one from the last episode: the Grand Canyon.
James Holland: I told you before the other day, you're kind of like on the edge of the Grand Canyon, right? And you jump off, but you have to understand that once you jump, you jump, OK? You’ve jumped, OK?
Chris Ax: I didn’t jump, I got pushed.
Despite Holland’s best efforts, Ax just isn’t remembering. And then Ax does something shocking, at least to me. He suggests they visit the place where Sarah’s body was found.
Chris Ax: I need to see where it happened because one of two things is going to happen: Either I’m gonna firmly tell you I didn’t fucking do it when we get there, because there’s places I’ve been, and places that I haven’t been since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Or I’m gonna remember more.
James Holland: OK. Well, let’s go.
Chris Ax: I mean, fucking handcuffs.
I have to say: I’ve never heard of a detective taking a suspect to a crime scene before a confession. Talk about the risk of contaminating memories.
They drive over. It’s the middle of the night as they trek through the woods. They reach the abandoned barn. Ax says the walls look familiar.
A story emerges, very slowly, bit by bit, sort of a co-production of Holland’s and Ax’s late-night brains. Please skip ahead around a minute if you don’t want to hear talk of suicide.
In this story, Sarah made a sexual advance towards Ax. He rejected her. And then — and it’s a huge leap — she hanged herself. Ax tells Holland that he has this hazy memory of discovering her and of cutting the rope.
Chris Ax: I know somehow suicide came up, and I remembered sitting, just sitting on the step inside the building. And again, I was so freaking tired and I said, “I don't know why, but I could see somebody just swinging right there, like they had hung themselves.” And I think it was the fact that I was so exhausted. I was thinking back to the military.
When I met Ax, he told me that, during his time in the military, he was traumatized by a similar incident. One of his friends, a fellow soldier, did hang himself, and Ax discovered the aftermath.
Chris Ax: Yeah, him hanging himself — that did a number. I think it did a number on all of us, though.
Ax told me he wondered if the police interrogation revived this stress, contributing to the blur between memory and invention. Larry Driskill actually said something similar about his own trauma from an incident in the military.
Some psychologists have told me that past trauma might raise the risk of a false confession. Most of what we know comes from stories of kids and women who experienced domestic violence. But it doesn’t feel random that both Ax and Driskill had these traumatic episodes in the military before they confessed to Holland.
Ax and Holland return to the sheriff's office and over an hour goes by with them exploring the possibility of Sarah taking her own life.
And things become even weirder. They order pizza.
James Holland: Honestly, I was thinking about Domino’s pizza because I’m hungry. Maybe since you ate Domino’s pizza that night, that will help you.
Chris Ax: Huh? The one thing I do remember…
James Holland: Memory and taste and odor. Man, I’m telling you.
He’s saying, “Let’s eat the same kind of pizza as you did the night of your friend’s death. Maybe that will jog your memory.” In the Driskill case, he had asked a witness to concentrate on the five senses in his memories, hoping to unlock something new. That’s not really controversial: It’s part of a technique called the “cognitive interview,” the same one that Holland used on Michael Harden in Episode 2.
And it makes some sense: Who doesn’t have memories awakened by smells and tastes? But I’ve never heard of a detective actually using the physical item to revive the sensory experience, literally.
Eventually the pizza arrives.
James Holland: Yeah. You know? Yeah. I thought Domino’s had that 10-minute deal.
Unknown voice: Yeah, 30 minutes or it’s free.
James Holland: Oh, man, thank you. Do you want some?
Unknown voice: We got a second.
James Holland: Oh, you probably got pizza, didn’t you? Lucky Ax is in here, rolling over.
So now Holland tells Ax to focus on the flavor of the pizza. We’re nearly five hours into the interrogation at this point. It’s late into the night.
Chris Ax: One, I’m trying to remember. Two, I’m glad you like this pizza.
James Holland: It’s helping you though.
Chris Ax: No, that’s nasty.
James Holland: I’m here for you. I’m here for you.
Chris Ax: It’s nasty.
James Holland: I’m [inaudible] stuff right now, man.
Chris Ax: They didn’t cut it like this back then though.
James Holland: I’m [inaudible] stuff right now. I’m helping you to remember. Face that crust. Smell it.
About an hour later they start discussing a green rope found in Sarah’s car. That’s when Ax responds in a way he can’t control. He throws up. The next few things we cover are hard to listen to, but I think it’s important in order to understand the state that Chris Ax is in when he starts to cooperate.
James Holland: Dude, you all right?
Chris Ax: Not 100%, no.
James Holland: You want some water? I know that throw-up doesn’t taste good in the mouth.
I can think of other examples where someone who committed murder has a similar bodily response to being confronted about it. So I can see how this would really make Holland think Ax is guilty. When I interviewed Ax, he told me he had just been sick. But he also recalls feeling really hopeless.
Ax is so hopeless that now he sounds suicidal. He asks Holland to shoot him.
Chris Ax: All kidding aside, I really do wish you would just fucking shoot me. I’m not even bullshitting when I say that.
James Holland: Not gonna do it, man.
Chris Ax: I wish you would.
James Holland: Not that person.
Chris Ax: Well, I’m not the kind of person that kills somebody, but I’m in jail for it.
Maurice: At a certain point you'’e so resigned that you ask him to shoot you or you just say like, “This would be easier if you just shoot me now.”
Chris Ax: Yeah. Right.
Maurice: Do you remember that?
Chris Ax: Oh yeah, I remember that. I wanted it done. I wanted to be away from him, and I thought that was probably the only way I was getting rid of him.
Maurice: I see.
Chris Ax: I mean, to be completely honest.
It’s in this really vulnerable state, late into the night, when Ax starts to accept Holland’s scenarios. Holland starts to revise the story about Sarah Daugherty hanging herself. Instead, he says, “Well, maybe the rope was around her neck because you put it there. Maybe she attacked you, and you defended yourself.”
James Holland: But, I mean, if she comes at you with that thing and starts trying to wrap around your neck, and you push it off and it ends up around her, you know?
Chris Ax: Yeah. I would’ve pushed her hard at that point. It would've been…
James Holland: Yeah.
Chris Ax: … fight or flight and get the fuck off.
James Holland: Well, I mean, is this the ultimate self defense where she’s trying to kill you?
Chris Ax: I hate saying it, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Holland asks for a more specific memory.
James Holland: Do you remember that rope coming up underneath you?
Chris Ax: Remember? No, but it’s…
James Holland: Can you feel it?
Chris Ax: Yeah. Yeah. Does that make sense?
James Holland: Yeah.
Chris Ax: But the thing is, everything happened so fucking fast. Everything I did would've been pure reaction.
James Holland: Mm-hmm.
Chris Ax: I mean, pure reaction and the sole intent would’ve been getting her the fuck off.
James Holland: Mm-hmm.
Chris Ax: Not killing her, not ending her life, not hurting her, just getting her off.
This is the end of an eight-hour interview. Ax is clearly broken.
Chris Ax: I knew there was a point when no matter what I did, he wasn’t going away.
So Ax remains in jail. There are moments where, just like Driskill, he wonders: Did I really kill someone and not remember it? What does that say about me?
But at other moments, Ax gets his bearings and thinks: No, I am innocent. I didn’t kill anyone. This Texas Ranger just manipulated me into admitting things that are not true.
At this point Ax is in the same situation as Larry Driskill: Do I plead out and minimize my losses with a lighter prison sentence? Or do I fight this out in a trial? Ax has been charged with capital murder, meaning he could face the death penalty, or at the very least spend the rest of his life in prison. And to win, he’s somehow got to convince the jury that he didn’t do it, even though he confessed.
But there is a difference: In Driskill’s case, evidence from the crime scene is either not tested for DNA or the samples are too poor to provide usable results. We’ll get into that in the next episode. In Ax’s case, there are still DNA results pending.
Chris Ax spends more than three years in jail, waiting for his case to be investigated further and a trial date to be set. He doesn’t plead guilty. He plans to fight to the end. He has to wait as prosecutors and defense lawyers are making plans to duke it out in court. Finally, the trial is set for the fall of 2018.
But then the DNA test comes back.
It shows that the DNA on Sarah’s clothes matches the original suspect in the case, who had died in a car accident. Not Chris Ax.
This is a bombshell: Ax learns that this test was so damaging to the prosecution’s case that they are dropping the capital murder charge. He’s a free man. The DA puts out a press release. It says, “We cannot blindly seek convictions or close our eyes to evidence that points in a different direction than we are heading.”
To this day, the prosecutors in his case maintain the DNA test doesn’t ultimately prove Ax’s innocence. There was room for error. It’s just that they couldn’t justify continuing to pursue the case against him.
Ax, of course, continues to maintain his innocence and it’s true there’s no meaningful evidence against him except for his late-night confession to Holland.
But that’s not the end of his story. He told me that many people in his town are still convinced he’s guilty and got away with it. This makes it hard to get a job, to land an apartment, to meet people, to date.
When we spoke, at his mother’s house, he repeatedly mentioned the fact that several of his relatives died while he was in jail thinking he was a murderer.
And he has some really choice words for James Holland. He says Holland lied on the witness stand during a court hearing, saying he didn’t know Ax had a lawyer. We don’t have the records to prove or disprove that.
Chris Ax: He was a moron. I’m dead serious when I say that. It takes a certain kind of stupid to focus on just one person instead of looking at facts, and that’s all he was doing.
Maurice: I see.
Chris Ax: And I’m sorry, I’m not gonna pull punches when it comes to this guy. I refuse. How he became a Texas Ranger is beyond me, because that just shows me the bar, [the] level has been dropped so low for him to have gotten that far.
Larry Driskill never says things like that. Ax is angry. And at one point that anger was pointed, it felt like, towards me. After I first interviewed Ax, I wrote about his case and what Holland did.
Afterwards I went back and asked him, “Can I bring a microphone to your house and do an interview for this podcast?” Initially he refused. He said that in my article I made Holland sound too good. He said he felt betrayed.
Which is a matter of opinion. I don’t know if I could ever satisfy him on that front.
But more importantly, he said my article hadn’t really done anything for him. He’d thought maybe a lawyer would see it and help him sue Holland, but that never happened. It was sort of like: You got your story, but I’m still here, my life is still hard. He said he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk again.
In a way, it was sort of a relief. I came away from both the Larry Driskill and the Chris Ax interviews feeling conflicted about asking these guys to revisit moments of trauma in such depth.
When Ax got angry with me, it was like, “Finally!” This is sort of what I’ve been waiting for, someone to call me out for picking at their psychological wounds.
Ax saw himself as a victim,reasonably enough. He hadn’t been assaulted, and he hadn’t lost a loved one to murder. But he’d been traumatized. The things I’d felt approaching the family of Bobbie Sue Hill, the victim in Driskill’s case, returned. Was I just using him for a good story? And what did I owe him in exchange? I don’t have answers to those questions. I’m still wrestling with them.
So now, back to Driskill, who as of 2017 is still in jail. No DNA is coming back to free him. That jailhouse informant has made the prosecution’s case against him even stronger. What Driskill does have is a lawyer. He’s an old, seasoned defender named Jack Strickland.
Maurice: [A]nd what was your first interaction, first conversations with — what was it — Jack Strickland?
Larry Driskill: Mm-hmm.
Maurice: At the beginning, what played out?
Larry Driskill: Oh, Lord. He said, “I'm your court-appointed attorney,” and he said something like, “You didn’t do this,” and whatever. I only seen him two or three times in six months.
To recap Driskill’s situation: He has a choice to make. He can plead guilty. That would get him a limited prison term. Or he could go to trial. If he wins, he’s free, it’s all over. But if he loses, he gets a really severe sentence, maybe life in prison.
And Driskill starts to feel like his lawyer is pushing him to take the deal — to forego a trial and just take prison time.
Larry Driskill: He was pushing us into it.
For a defense lawyer, not going to trial is easier. And the prosecutors know that. That’s why they make it worthwhile to take the deal, offering a lighter sentence than they would demand in a trial. More than 90% of felony convictions across the U.S. end up with one of these deals.
At the same time, Driskill’s lawyer Jack Strickland does put up a fight.
In June 2017, Driskill is taken from the jail to a courtroom for a pre-trial hearing. It’s a chance for both sides to clash over what evidence will be allowed into the actual trial. I have the transcript.
Strickland, the defender, says [that] the whole interrogation that led to Driskill’s confession is full of stuff that violated his constitutional rights; [that] the confession should be thrown out.
In order to resolve this, the judge invites up to the witness stand, you guessed it: Texas Ranger James Holland.
Strickland questions him about the fact that there are some big gaps in the recordings. It’s hard to know what would be in those gaps, given how intense the recorded parts are. But it’s possible Holland did something like flat-out refuse to get Driskill a lawyer, and that casts a questionable light on the whole thing.
Holland says the various recording devices malfunctioned. He denies ever refusing Driskill a lawyer, and says technically Driskill didn’t really ask for one. In the recording, remember Driskill just kept asking whether he should call a lawyer. It wasn’t clear-cut.
Larry Driskill: Do I need to call an attorney or what?
After Holland leaves the stand, Strickland says to the judge and the prosecution: Look, sure Driskill didn’t ask for a lawyer directly. But look at the full circumstances. Driskill thought at first he was just a witness to the crime, and Holland told him if he implicated himself — you know, dug into his memory and said, “Yeah, I was there” — it would help him. Strickland says Holland’s approach “prevented” Driskill from “knowing his true status” as a suspect. So no, he didn’t ask for a lawyer, but he didn’t know he needed to because Holland lied to him.
The prosecutor responds [that] lying is legal, which is true. And he says Holland never shouted at Driskill, never berated him. He was calm and professional the whole time. He played by the rules.
The hearing ends. The judge now gets to decide. Afterwards, Driskill considers the deal that’s on the table.
Larry Driskill: When [my lawyer] first told me what they were offering, [that] they came up with 15 years. I said, “No, if y’all gonna screw me, let’s just make this as easy as possible. Let’s say five years and let's be done with this.” [My lawyer] said they won’t do that.
Maurice: Who said that?
Larry Driskill: Jack Strickland.
Larry Driskill: I said, OK, “Let’s say 10 years. If y’all gonna screw me, let’s make this as easy as possible.”
I need to be clear here. What Driskill was being offered wasn’t a deal to plead guilty. It was actually what they call a no-contest plea.
Larry Driskill: Well, he said that some counties won’t allow a ‘no contest.’ Some counties will say, “You either have to say guilty or not guilty.” He said, “But Parker County will let you say ‘no contest.’”
A plea of “no contest” is unusual. It’s basically a strange middle ground where the defendant says, “I’m not guilty, but I acknowledge the prosecution has a strong enough case against me that I’ll accept a deal.” And the prosecution says, “Fine, maintain your innocence, but take the prison sentence.”
So Driskill has this meeting with his lawyer and his family members.
Larry Driskill: Jack Strickland was in the front corner. My wife was sitting down, my mom was behind my wife, and my stepdad was next to her behind the attorney. And he said, “This is the best thing to do, because if [you don’t take this deal], they’re gonna go for a life sentence. And you have to pull a minimum of 30 years in prison.”
Feeling out of options, Driskill takes the deal of no contest. Fifteen years in prison.
Strickland’s perspective on all this is quite different. We spoke for an hour over the phone. He’s adamant that he did as well as he could’ve done for Driskill under the circumstances. Fifteen years for first-degree murder is pretty light by Texas standards. And Strickland argues that if they had gone to trial then Driskill — with all his uncertainty and his inconsistent memories — would not have gone over well with a jury. For what it’s worth, I get it. Driskill does come across as unsure. He’s bad at describing his memories. On the other hand: Who among us is that good at sounding certain about events ten years in the past?
Overall, considering the challenges he faced, Strickland says, this plea deal of “no contest” was a great outcome. In fact, he called it a “near miracle.”
But it doesn’t feel that way to Driskill
Larry Driskill: I trusted the legal system. And I won’t ever do that again.
Because the two sides have struck a deal, there is no trial. There’s just another court hearing to put it on the record. Bobbie Sue Hill’s family is in the courtroom, watching, and they’re given the opportunity to make a statement. Her oldest daughter says, “My mom’s short life enriched the lives of so many people. She’ll be loved and missed forever.”
Driskill goes from the county jail to the Texas prison system. Eventually he’s transferred to a facility in a small, remote town, Woodville, Texas, hundreds of miles from his wife and his mom. He and his wife start heading to divorce, but his mom Lynda is driving hundreds of miles regularly to go see him.
Larry Driskill: We had a guy come in [who] started the veterans’ program there.
The prison has a program for military veterans. And it’s during one of their meetings that somebody suggests Driskill write a letter about his case and send it to The Innocence Project of Texas.
Larry Driskill: Then all of a sudden, next thing you know, I get a phone call about a visit. I didn’t have one lawyer show up. I had four lawyers show up.
It’s actually two lawyers and two of their students. During their first meeting Mike Ware says to Driskill...
Mike Ware: “One more question I got to ask you,” I said. “What’s that?” he said. “You more worried about the money or your name being cleared?” “All I want right now is my name cleared. Everything else will come to fruition. I just want my name cleared.”
And that’s what Driskill is going to try to do. Clear his name.
Next time on “Just Say You're Sorry.”
Jillian Lauren, a journalist who met James Holland: I was sort of starry-eyed for the American hero, the cowboy, and also, here’s my white knight, right?
We follow James Holland to Hollywood for the case that would make him famous.
“Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry,” is a production of Somethin’ Else, The Marshall Project and Sony Music Entertainment. It’s written and hosted by me, Maurice Chammah. The senior producer is Tom Fuller, the producer is Georgia Mills, Peggy Sutton is the story editor, Dave Anderson is the executive producer and editor and Cheeka Eyers is the development producer. Akiba Solomon and I are the executive producers for The Marshall Project where Susan Chira is editor-in-chief. The production manager is Ike Egbetola and fact checking is by Natsumi Ajisaka. Graham Reynolds composed the original music and Charlie Brandon King is the mixer and sound designer. The studio engineers are Josh Gibbs, Gulliver Lawrence Tickell, Jay Beale and Teddy Riley, with additional recording by Ryan Katz. This series drew in part on my 2022 article for The Marshall Project, “Anatomy of a Murder Confession.” With thanks to Jez Nelson, Ruth Baldwin and Susan Chira.
This series drew in part on my 2022 article for The Marshall Project, “Anatomy of a Murder Confession.” With thanks to Jez Nelson, Ruth Baldwin and Susan Chira.