Greg Kelley has hopes and dreams, like a lot of people.
But he's also busy simply enjoying his freedom.
The former high school football star, whose story was just told in the Showtime documentary series Outcry, spent three years in prison for a crime he didn't commit and, even after his release in 2017, he was only formally exonerated this past November.
The crime? "Worse than murder" when you're in prison, Kelley said in an interview last month with E! News.
Kelley started playing varsity football at Leander High School in Texas—where high school football on Friday rivals church on Sunday as a religious practice—when he was a sophomore. In 2013, with four scholarship offers on the table, a steady girlfriend and the future looking bright, the 17-year-old was accused of molesting a 4-year-old boy.
He was convicted in 2014 of super-aggravated assault on a child and sentenced to 25 years in prison
"Being labeled a pedophile is worse than murder," Kelley explained. "When you're in there as a pedophile you're already the scum of the earth." He's surprised he was never stabbed, he said, but not a day went by where he didn't have to defend himself.
All the while, he insisted he was innocent. His new attorney, Keith Hampton, filed multiple motions, alleging that the police investigation was shoddy and that Kelley wasn't properly represented at trial. The legal team also filed documents naming an alternate suspect, Johnathan McCarty. McCarty's family had taken Kelley in when Greg's own parents' health problems made it tough for them to take care of him. Shama McCarty, Johnathan's mother, ran an in-home daycare, the scene of the alleged sexual assault. (In an unrelated case, Johnathan was sentenced to four years in prison last year after pleading guilty to unlawful restraint and drug charges. A girl had accused him of drugging and assaulting her at a frat party in 2015, when she was 15 and he was 18.)
In May 2017, newly elected Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick agreed to reopen the investigation, and that August, Kelley was released on a $50,000 bond. His name wasn't cleared yet, but the young man was feeling hopeful.
District Judge Donna King recommended in December 2017 that Kelley's conviction be overturned, writing in her decision that the state wouldn't have been able to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt if certain evidence that had come to light since had been presented at trial. After that, Kelley had to wait and see what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would say.
Almost two years later, the appeals court agreed, sent their decision back to the district court to formally dismiss the indictment, and King declared an emotional Kelley "formally exonerated."
Between Kelley, his family and his fiancée, the tears were flowing.
But while that was the outcome Kelley had been praying for, his life hasn't simply snapped back to normal.
"Still to this day, it doesn't get easier," Kelley told E! News. "Me and my family, that nightmare that we went through, is something I don't wish on my worst enemy. It was definitely hard. We got to premiere this documentary months before it came out and, sitting there with my family, reliving six years of heartache in a documentary that's about five hours—I mean, there's no words to explain it."
As he works on putting his world back together, buoyed by his faith and all the love in his life (including from his now-wife Gaebri Anderson, the high school girlfriend who stuck by him throughout his ordeal), he's also suing the city of Cedar Park, former Police Chief Sean Mannix and Sgt. Christopher Dailey, who was the lead investigator on his case.
According to the lawsuit filed in May and obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, Kelley alleges that Dailey did not verify Kelley's location the day of the assault, did not investigate other suspects, falsified information about when the assault happened and deleted emails about the case. The suit contends that Dailey was told Kelley hadn't lived at the McCarty home since June 2013 but changed the date to make it look as if he was still there on the July date the assault was alleged to have occurred.
Dailey resigned in July, according to Spectrum News, and the city sent a letter to the district attorney's office requesting an investigation into the now-former police sergeant's conduct. Having previously maintained that he conducted a thorough investigation in the Kelley case, Dailey had yet to comment. Chief Mannix retired from the Cedar Park force in February and was due to assume that role in the much smaller city of Burnet, about 36 miles away, but KXAN reported on July 13 that he would no longer be taking the job.
Kelley had publicly expressed his hope that Dailey and Mannix would be fired, telling reporters outside Burnet City Hall, "The reason why we wanted this to happen guys is because it's not about me, it's about the next person. We wanted to make sure that this guy did not want to come right next door to y'all's town, because I know you guys love your town just like we love ours, and do this to somebody else."
He added, "The heartache and division it has created in our town is something that should never happen."
Separate from his own civil suit, Kelley is also eligible to receive as much as $250,000 through the state's Wrongful Incarceration Act, according to his attorney.
But even in the middle of the nightmare, he found bright spots. He made friends on the inside whom he keeps in touch with daily, and he said he intends to start a prison ministry to help people serious about turning their life around. "I want to give back," he said. "Those guys taught me so much about getting through and persevering through such a place full of hatred and violence, and racists. It's crazy!"
And when he was convicted, Kelley recalled, "a groundswell of support from above started coming up and people started having my back. I didn't expect any of that. I myself was losing hope, but all these people started believing in me and they started to say, 'Hey, Greg, we're here for you man, we love you, we're gonna get you through this.' It gave me a little bit more hope."
Strangers really did come out of the woodwork. A former Cedar Park resident named Jake Brydon helped pay for his defense through the appeals process. "You had no idea who I was after my conviction," Kelley said in court on the day of his exoneration. "But you called my broken mother and promised her you would do everything you could to fight for me."
Still, none of that changes that he spent almost seven years, including three behind bars, with a cloud of guilt hanging over his head. A presumption of innocence until proven guilty may be the law, but that's not often the way people think.
Early on, as soon as his name was out there, the case was taken up in the court of public opinion by child welfare activists—and the Internet took it from there. And once he was convicted, those who had assumed he was guilty figured they were merely being proved right.
Kelley said that of course children should have fierce advocates and they are generally doing important work. "But," he added, "it turned into about six or seven of them... turning it more into a hatred towards me. Saying things they can't and they won't take back and, still to this day, I continue to get persecuted, and it breaks my heart. It really does.
"It breaks my family's heart because I don't deserve that, they don't deserve that. I've done everything I possibly can to show you that I didn't do this."
Texas Ranger Cody Mitchell, tasked with leading the new investigation in 2017, testified that August that he had determined that the Cedar Park Police had botched the original investigation. He was unable to definitively conclude who the perpetrator was, but he had three suspects: Kelley, Johnathan McCarty and an unnamed third person.
Keith Hampton had alleged in Kelley's appeal that the accused's trial lawyer, Patricia Cummings, had not adequately defended him, namely by refusing to take a harder look at McCarty as a possible suspect due to a conflict of interest, having represented members of the McCarty family some years prior.
She maintained in 2017 that the defense she went with—arguing that no abuse had occurred—was her best available option at the time based on the evidence. Court documents filed by Hampton in December 2018 stated that they also had a third suspect, whose name was not made public, who had a prior arrest on a charge of indecency with a child and had also lived in the home where the abuse allegedly took place. Furthermore, the filing also alleged, Cummings had previously represented this third suspect in another matter and therefore refrained from investigating that person as well.
An attorney for Cummings told the American-Statesman that she didn't have any evidence against this third person when she was on the case, but "it is significant that they are now saying that he is the one who did this. We all agree that if [this person] committed the offense, then Greg's conviction should certainly be reversed."
No one has been charged in the case since Kelley was cleared.
In early November, when the appellate court agreed Kelley's conviction should be overturned, Hampton told reporters that prosecuting someone else for the crime would be a tricky case no matter what. "This particular child said Greg," he acknowledged. "And he's never said anything but Greg and he said it under oath. It's testimony, so how does a prosecutor overcome that?"
Kelley also said that day, "I was given my freedom and I'm happy with it." But, he added, "I want justice." And "I want this kid to feel like he's been delivered justice."
Shawn Dick told reporters a few weeks later, "We were able at least to get to the truth of whether or not Greg Kelley should have been convicted and whether or not the trial was held appropriately. Unfortunately, we were unable to get to the ultimate answer of what happened to the child."
But though Kelley is committed to holding the parties he feels are responsible for damaging his life—"financially, emotionally, mentally, physically"—accountable, he told E! News, "hate is a virus and I have to realign myself with what my purpose needs to be, every time I wake up."
He calls his wife, Gaebri Anderson, "totally unreal," adding, "I don't think there's a woman out there that can compare to the amount of heart and faith she has…I would be a damn fool to ever try to let that go. I hit the jackpot."
Anderson, 24, told the New York Post last month, "It was crazy. I had friends since I was a baby who were saying, 'I can't believe you are sticking by him.' From the first day in my heart, I knew he didn't do this." She continued, "I had no doubt in my mind. I knew what kind of person he was. We weren't really scared going into the trial. There was no way he was going to get convicted on the evidence they didn't have. We actually had a trip planned for the next day."
They both may have had too much confidence in the system, but at least in the end, her faith and trust in Greg was not misplaced.
Both just 17 at the time, the trial made them grow up fast. Kelley wrote her letters with drawings of hearts all over them from prison. "The physical was taken away from us," Gaebri, a cheerleader in high school who now teaches at a dance studio near Cedar Park, told the Post. "Imagine not being able to kiss or hug the person you love. We had to fall in love with each other's hearts through these letters."
Kelley asked his future father-in-law for his daughter's hand in marriage while he was still locked up—but he didn't propose until after he was out. Earning money proved tough while he was still a convicted felon, so he saved up for a ring doing yard work and other odd jobs. They tied the knot in Austin this past January.
They're holding off on having kids though, Anderson said, so that her husband can focus on school.
Kelley was accepted at the University of Texas and, after getting a walk-on tryout this spring, hopes to play for the Longhorns.
"Football is a love of mine, something that I feel like has been given to me to love and to cherish and to experience," he told E! News. "So I want to explore that, I want to be given an opportunity to go and show these coaches like, 'Hey, I can continue to play, I've got tons of heart. Give me a shot.' I'm still waiting for that decision from Texas, to see if I'm going to be a walk-on this fall—if we have a fall season."
As of now, the Big 12 hasn't canceled football season due to COVID-19, unlike some of the other major college football conferences.
But if anyone has the patience and strength to wait it out a bit longer, it's Kelley. Just last week he showed off the high school diploma he finally had a chance to go and get in person.
"Picked up my long overdue high school diploma yesterday at Leander High School," he wrote on Instagram. "It was an honor being able to be given this as I shook the hand of the current principal and was given a tour of a school where I once created wonderful memories. [E]ven though I didn't technically have a senior year as a normal high school student, the past is the past and the future is limitless."
Catch Justin Sylvester's interview with Greg Kelley on the Aug. 19 episode of E!'s Just the Sip, available wherever you get your podcasts