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Joe Bryan Denied Parole for Seventh Time

Though a forensic expert who testified against Bryan has admitted his conclusions were wrong, Bryan will remain behind bars.

Joe Bryan in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. (Katie Campbell/ProPublica)

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The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Joe Bryan parole for a seventh time on Friday, citing the brutal nature of the crime he stands convicted of — the 1985 shooting death of his wife, Mickey — in concluding that the 78-year-old “poses a continuing threat to public safety.”

Bryan has twice been convicted of Mickey’s murder, which took place in their Clifton, Texas, home. Bryan, then a beloved high school principal, had been attending an education conference in Austin, 120 miles away, in the days surrounding the murder. He has always maintained that he was asleep in his hotel room at the time of the crime. His conviction, for which Bryan has spent 31 years in prison, rested largely on bloodstain-pattern analysis, a technique still in use throughout the criminal justice system, despite concerns about its reliability.

At an evidentiary hearing last year in Comanche, Texas, Bryan’s attorneys presented new evidence that jurors who convicted him never heard — most notably, that the forensic testimony used to convict him was erroneous. “My conclusions were wrong,” retired police Detective Robert Thorman, who performed the bloodstain-pattern analysis in the case, wrote in a sworn affidavit submitted to the court. “Some of the techniques and methodology were incorrect. Therefore, some of my testimony was not correct.”

Last July, before the hearing, the Texas Forensic Science Commission — which investigates complaints about the misuse of forensic testimony and evidence in criminal cases — announced that the blood-spatter analysis used to convict Bryan was “not accurate or scientifically supported.”

In December, however, Judge Doug Shaver, who presided over the evidentiary hearing, recommended that Bryan’s conviction stand, and that he not be granted a new trial. Shaver adopted the prosecution’s findings in their entirety. This included an argument by Bosque County District Attorney Adam Sibley acknowledging that parts of Thorman’s testimony were incorrect but arguing that it didn’t matter: “Thorman’s testimony was not important to the case.”

Bryan’s plea for a new trial is currently before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Its justices may take as long as they like to consider the case, a fact that does not work in Bryan’s favor, since he suffers from congestive heart failure.

The board’s denial followed a concerted effort on the part of Bryan’s parole attorneys, Allen and Shea Place, and the Bryan family to win his release. They hoped that Bryan’s sterling disciplinary record, combined with the revelations of the Comanche hearing, would bring a different result.

The parole board’s reasoning in rendering its decision will never be known. Its members’ deliberations, as well as the documents and testimony they reviewed, are exempt from state open record laws. Who opposed Bryan’s bid for parole, and what they told parole board members, also is confidential.

“I’m in total disbelief,” said Joe’s oldest brother, James, from his home in Houston. “How is a 78-year-old man whose heart is failing, who can barely walk 20 paces without breathing hard, a danger to society? How is a man who hasn’t had a single disciplinary problem in over 30 years in prison a danger?”

Sibley was not available for comment at the time of publication but has previously declined to comment on the Bryan case.

Bryan’s attorney Jessica Freud sees Texas’ highest criminal court as Bryan’s last chance for redemption. “All we can do is continue to anxiously await a decision from the Court of Criminal Appeals,” she said, “and hope that the court will act in time to prevent an innocent man from dying in prison.”

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Pamela Colloff

Pamela Colloff is a senior reporter at ProPublica and a writer-at-large at The New York Times Magazine.

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