Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube
Fall Member Drive Hold the powerful to account.
Donate Now

Joe Bryan in His Own Words: On Being Convicted With Expert Testimony That Turned Out to Be Wrong

In a moving interview, Bryan, who has spent 31 years in a Texas prison for the 1985 murder of his wife, talks about his life behind bars and trying keep hope alive.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Katie Campbell/ProPublica

This summer and fall, as Joe Bryan’s attorneys argued that he deserved a new trial, Bryan watched in silence. Although he was at the center of the evidentiary hearing in Comanche, Texas, he was never afforded a chance to speak. Dressed in a black-and-white-striped jail jumpsuit, he sat beside his defense attorneys, listening intently to each witness, a finger usually pressed to his temple in concentration. I often wondered what he was thinking.

Bryan has twice been convicted of the 1985 murder of his wife, Mickey, an elementary school teacher, 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. At the hearing in Comanche, compelling evidence was presented 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.”

It was a startling admission coming 31 years into Bryan’s prison sentence. Curious what he made of all this, I asked him if he would be willing to talk — about Mickey; about his odyssey through the criminal justice system; and about his decades behind bars. He agreed, and ProPublica video journalist Katie Campbell and I went to the prison in Huntsville, Texas, known as the Walls Unit, to interview him on camera. We had a strict time limit, so we stuck to broad themes, rather than exploring the many intricacies of his case. The resulting video provides a moving view of a man who has somehow retained grace, forgiveness and, most of all, hope, even after his world turned its back on him.

Not long after our interview, Bryan’s case suffered a major setback. Judge Doug Shaver — who oversaw the hearing — recommended that Bryan’s conviction stand, and that he not be granted a new trial. Shaver did not explain his reasoning; rather than write an opinion, he adopted the prosecutors’ 63 pages of conclusions about the hearing in their entirety, even a confounding argument that the erroneous bloodstain-pattern testimony was not important to the case.

Bryan’s plea for a new trial now goes before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, whose justices will be the final arbiters. They may take as long as they like to consider the case, a fact that does not work in Bryan’s favor. Bryan is 78 years old and suffers from congestive heart failure.

Three days after Shaver’s decision, Bryan’s older brother, James, and Bryan’s attorney, Jessica Freud, drove to Huntsville to break the news to him. “Needless to say, Joe was totally devastated,” James told me.

For nearly half of the two-hour visit, Joe was unable to speak, except to tell his two visitors through tears that they did not have to stay. They remained with him, sitting on the other side of the glass divider in anguished silence.

“Before we left, I told him that I understood,” James said. “But I knew I couldn’t really understand, because I was on one side of the glass and he was on the other.”

Filed under:

Protect Independent Journalism

This story you’ve just finished was funded by our readers. We hope it inspires you to make a gift to ProPublica so that we can publish more investigations like this one that hold people in power to account and produce real change.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces nonpartisan, evidence-based journalism to expose injustice, corruption and wrongdoing. We were founded over 10 years ago to fill a growing hole in journalism: Newsrooms were (and still are) shrinking, and legacy funding models are failing. Deep-dive reporting like ours is slow and expensive, and investigative journalism is a luxury in many newsrooms today — but it remains as critical as ever to democracy and our civic life. More than a decade (and six Pulitzer Prizes) later, ProPublica has built one of the largest investigative newsrooms in the country. Our work has spurred reform through legislation, at the voting booth and inside our nation’s most important institutions.

Your donation today will help us ensure that we can continue this critical work. From the climate crisis, to racial justice, to wealth inequality and much more, we are busier than ever covering stories you won’t see anywhere else. Make your gift of any amount today and join the tens of thousands of ProPublicans across the country, standing up for the power of independent journalism to produce real, lasting change. Thank you.

Donate Now

Pamela Colloff

Pamela Colloff is a reporter at ProPublica and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page