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Mart’s Roddrell Freeman (10) runs for a touch down against Muenster in the first half.

Judge denies relief request from former Clifton principal serving 99-year sentence for murder
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Former Clifton High School Principal Joe Bryan will not be receiving the Christmas miracle he was hoping for this year after a judge on Thursday denied his request for a new trial and innocence claims.

Senior Judge Doug Shaver adopted recommended findings submitted by 220th Judicial District Attorney Adam Sibley and rejected those of Bryan’s attorneys, Walter M. Reaves Jr. and Jessi Freud, in denying Bryan’s seven grounds for relief.

Shaver’s recommendation will be forwarded to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has the final say in Bryan’s claims that he is innocent in the 1985 shooting death of his wife. Bryan had hoped Shaver would declare him innocent, but at the very least, would rule he deserves a new trial because of forensic errors and other matters his attorneys alleged in an application for writ of habeas corpus.

Sibley declined comment on Shaver’s ruling.

Bryan, now 77 and suffering from congestive heart failure, is serving a 99-year sentence in the death of his wife, Mickey, an elementary school teacher in Clifton. Bryan was convicted by two juries, one in Meridian and one in Comanche, after his first conviction was overturned on appeal. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence and recently was denied parole again.

Shaver’s ruling comes after a three-day hearing in August in Comanche and a follow-up hearing in September at which Bryan’s attorneys called experts who said Bryan’s trials were marred by errors and flawed testimony about blood-spatter evidence. An initial investigator in the case eventually admitted at the hearing that he botched his interpretation of crime-scene blood patterns and was wrong.

“We are surprised and disappointed that the trial court rubber-stamped the state’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which recommended that Joe be denied any relief,” Freud said. “We remain hopeful that the Court of Criminal Appeals will see the obvious and blatant issues with the evidence supporting Joe’s convictions coupled with all of the newly discovered evidence presented and will timely rectify this injustice.”

The hearings in Comanche were attended each day by throngs of Bryan supporters, who wore matching shirts and who have never believed Bryan killed his wife.

Bryan’s attorneys offered evidence of post-conviction DNA testing on a flashlight found in Bryan’s car trunk; new testing of underwear found in the home; evidence of another potential suspect; evidence involving potential conflicts with the special prosecutor in Bryan’s case being hired by the victim’s family; and claims the special prosecutor chose to prosecute Bryan because he thinks Bryan is gay.

Bryan was in Austin at an educational conference when he was told of his wife’s death the next morning. Colleagues checked on Mickey Bryan when she uncharacteristically failed to show up for work. She had been shot three times in the head and once in the abdomen at close range with a gun loaded with ratshot, according to testimony at Bryan’s first trial in April 1986.

Bryan’s trial attorneys argued that investigators focused solely on Bryan when they could find no other suspects or motives. They stressed that it would be nearly impossible for Bryan to drive more than 120 miles from Austin to Clifton in a rain storm, kill his wife between 3:25 and 4:25 a.m. and drive back to Austin in time for an 8 a.m. meeting.

The jury convicted Bryan and recommended a 99-year sentence. His conviction was overturned after an appeals court in Eastland said the judge was wrong for not allowing Bryan’s attorneys to reopen their case to rebut testimony from a Texas Ranger that Bryan killed his wife over a $300,000 insurance policy.

Reaves said an insurance agent was ready to testify that he approached the Bryans, as he did many other educators in the community, and sold them the policy and that there was nothing unusual about it.

Read the "Blood Will Tell" series from the New York Times Magazine

> Part 1: Is Joe Bryan an innocent man, wrongfully imprisoned for the past 30 years on the basis of faulty forensic science?

> Part 2: Should this type of forensic science remain in the courtroom?

Bush laid to rest
Bushes depart on first presidential funeral train since 1969

COLLEGE STATION — Thousands waved and cheered along the route as funeral train No. 4141 — for the 41st president — carried George H.W. Bush’s remains to their final resting place on Thursday, his last journey as a week of national remembrance took on a decidedly personal feel in an emotional home state farewell.

Some people laid coins along the tracks that wound through small town Texas so a 420,000-pound locomotive pulling the nation’s first funeral train in nearly half a century could crunch them into souvenirs. Others snapped pictures or crowded for views so close that police helicopters overhead had to warn them back. Elementary students hoisted a banner simply reading “THANK YOU.”

The scenes reminiscent of a bygone era followed the more somber tone of a funeral service at a Houston church, where Bush’s former secretary of state and confidant for decades, James Baker, addressed him as “jefe,” Spanish for “boss.” At times choking back tears, Baker praised Bush as “a beautiful human being” who had “the courage of a warrior. But when the time came for prudence, he maintained the greater courage of a peacemaker.”

Baker also offered Bush as a contrast to today’s divisive, sometimes vitriolic politics, saying that his “wish for a kinder, gentler nation was not a cynical political slogan. It came honest and unguarded from his soul.”

“The world became a better place because George Bush occupied the White House for four years,” said Baker.

As the post-funeral motorcade carrying Bush’s remains later sped down a closed highway from the church to the train station, construction workers on all levels of an unfinished building paused to watch. A man sitting on a Ferris wheel near the aquarium waved.

Bush’s body was later loaded onto a special train fitted with clear sides so people could catch a glimpse of the casket as it rumbled by. The train traveled about 70 miles — the first presidential funeral train journey since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s remains went from Washington to his native Kansas 49 years ago — to the family plot on the grounds of Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M University. Bush’s final resting place is alongside his wife, Barbara, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia at age 3


In the town of Pinehurst, 55-year-old Doug Allen left eight coins on the tracks before the train passed — three quarters, three dimes and two pennies. The train left the coins flattened and slightly discolored.

“It’s something we’ll always keep,” Allen said.

Andy Gordon, 38, took his 6-year-old daughter, Addison, out of school so she and her 3-year-old sister, Ashtyn, could see the train pass.

“Hopefully, my children will remember the significance and the meaning of today,” Gordon said.

The train arrived in College Station in the late afternoon with a military band playing “Hail to the Chief” and then Texas A&M’s “Aggie War Hymn.”

About 2,100 cadets in their tan dress uniforms with jackets and ties and knee-high boots waited for hours on a cold, gray day to line the road —known as Barbara Bush Drive— to the Bush library’s front doors. The U.S. Navy conducted a 21 strike fighter flyover, a salute to the World War II Navy pilot, followed by a 21-gun cannon salute on the ground.

At the earlier service at Houston’s St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Bush and his family regularly worshipped, the choir sang “This is My Country,” which was also sung at Bush’s presidential inauguration in 1989. Those gathered heard a prayer stressing the importance of service and selflessness that the president himself offered for the country at the start of his term.

There were rousing renditions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and also performances from some of Bush’s country favorites. The Oak Ridge Boys recalled playing for him for decades — sometimes at the White House — and joked that Bush “fancied himself to be a good bass singer. He was not.” They then sang “Amazing Grace,” and Reba McEntire offered a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Thursday’s flavor was distinctly Texan, unlike three days of Washington celebrations that had more of a national feel. In place of most federal dignitaries were top Houston athletes including the NFL Texans’ defensive end J.J. Watt — showing Bush’s love for sports — and Chuck Norris, who played TV’s “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

Grandson George P. Bush, the only member of the political dynasty still holding elected office, as Texas land commissioner, used his eulogy to praise the man the younger generations called “gampy.”

“He left a simple, yet profound legacy to his children, to his grandchildren and to his country: service,” George P. Bush said.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., recalled the Bushes often attending services and offering to give up their seats to others on days when the church was particularly crowded.

“He was ready for heaven, and heaven was ready for him,” Levenson said of Bush who was in declining health in recent years. The minister suggested that when the former president died, he met his wife of 73 years in heaven and Barbara Bush playfully demanded, “What took you so long?”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Onlookers salute while the American flag is hoisted for the first time at the Doris Miller Memorial by the Navy Operational Support Center, Waco Honor Guard.

Agency: Cost to curb Texas flooding over 10 years is $31.5B

DALLAS — The cost to curtail damaging flooding across Texas over the next 10 years is more than $31.5 billion and state officials are urging lawmakers to adopt legislation meant to end a cycle of “repairing and rebuilding,” according to a series of recommendations released Thursday.

The Texas Water Development Board provided the recommendations to lawmakers ahead of the legislative session that begins next month. They’re part of an updated TWDB flood assessment report that says coastal and river flooding alone is expected to cause more than $6.8 billion in property losses over the next five years.

The agency is seeking a three-pronged approach: update flood mapping and modeling, establish comprehensive planning rather than piecemeal efforts, and enact policies and procedures to aid mitigation.

“Due to a combination of population growth and related development, Texas can be certain that without proper planning, flood events will impact more lives and cause more damage in the future,” the report said. “This statement is just as true on the High Plains near Post as it is along Dickinson Bayou near Galveston.”

Much of Texas is either unmapped or uses outdated ones, resulting in “widespread misunderstanding about true flood risks,” the report said. For instance, more than half of the flood insurance claims filed this year have occurred outside of areas identified as high-risk flood zones. The cost of updating flood-risk maps for all Texas watersheds is an estimated $604 million, according to the TWDB, which is the lead state agency tasked with water planning, data collection and other services.

“Despite 50 years of concerted effort and extensive participation by Texas communities, we find ourselves repairing and rebuilding instead of planning and preventing,” the board said in the report.

Larry Larson, senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said the board is right to promote a more comprehensive approach to curtail flooding, explaining that isolated efforts have little benefit.

“Most of the thinking in the Houston area has been let’s develop the hell out of it and expand the tax base,” Larson said, adding that the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey has largely changed that mindset.

David Maidment, an engineering professor at the University of Texas with an expertise in water resources planning, said coordinated efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Water Center at the University of Alabama and others has led to significant advancements in hydrologic analysis and forecasting.

“We’ve accomplished more in research in the last five years than in the previous 36 years of my career,” said Maidment, adding that “Texas has been the prototype for the development of a national forecast flooding system for the whole country.”

The population in Texas is projected to increase to nearly 42 million people by 2050, the TWDB noted in its report, with much of this growth occurring upstream and downstream of our major metropolitan areas. There needs to be a concerted effort to encourage sound land use that minimizes flood damage, according to the agency.

TWDB spokeswoman Merry Klonower said if lawmakers enact the agency’s recommendations, it would lay the foundation for comprehensively managing flood threats.

Developing flood maps for all watersheds and better planning represent “a new suite of activities and a new approach to identifying and minimizing flood risk for all Texans,” Klonower said Thursday.

Capital murder conviction at risk after video mishap spurs call for mistrial
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

A video recording that McLennan County prosecutors mistakenly played for jurors Thursday has placed a guilty verdict in a capital murder case in jeopardy.

Attorneys for the defendant, Tyler Sherrod Clay, asked 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson for a mistrial in the murder-for-hire case, saying that jurors were shown video evidence that the judge had excluded. In an unusual move, Judge Johnson accepted the jury’s guilty verdict Thursday but did not enter a judgment or sentence Clay pending a Dec. 20 hearing on the mistrial motion filed by defense attorneys Randy Schaffer and Melanie Walker.

Jurors deliberated about three hours Thursday before convicting Clay, the 29-year-old former owner of a Waco smoke shop, of hiring Keith Antoine Spratt to kill Joshua Ladale Pittman in December 2015. Prosecutors said during the four-day trial that Clay wanted Pittman killed out of revenge because Pittman reportedly robbed Clay after a dice game.

A four-time felon, James Spears, testified that Clay first asked him to kill Pittman, but Spears was jailed on aggravated robbery charges and could not follow through. In jail, Spratt later told Spears that Clay paid him $15,000 to kill Pittman, and that Clay still owed Spratt $5,000 for the hit job.

Spratt, 30, also is charged with capital murder. His case remains pending in 19th State District Court.

Schaffer asked for a mistrial in a meeting in the judge’s chambers in the middle of closing statements by Assistant District Attorney Hilary LaBorde. But he also requested that Johnson defer his ruling on the mistrial request until after the jury returned its verdict.

After Clay was convicted, Schaffer renewed his mistrial request, saying that during LaBorde’s closing statements, she played a portion of a videotaped interview between Clay and Waco police Detective Melissa Thompson that the judge previously had excluded.

Prosecutor Sterling Harmon argued that by asking the judge to defer the ruling, Schaffer likely did not properly preserve his motion for mistrial. Harmon presented cases to the judge supporting the state’s position on the motion and said that no harm came to Clay, that LaBorde did not act in bad faith and any problem was cured by the judge’s instruction to the jury to disregard that portion of the video.

The judge said he wanted to study the cases offered to the court and set a Dec. 20 hearing for additional arguments. Clay will remain in the McLennan County Jail until the hearing.

If the judge rejects Schaffer’s motion, he will sentence Clay to a life prison term with no hope for parole, the automatic sentence in capital murder cases in which the death penalty is not pursued.

Schaffer’s motion was prompted during LaBorde’s summation, when she said she grabbed the wrong disc and inadvertently played a portion of a video — two sentences — that the judge had ruled inadmissible.

In the video, Clay tells Thompson, “I have never told anyone that Pittman robbed me. I don’t know why anyone would say that. I have never said that.” The judge ordered the last two sentences stricken.

“The video that was in evidence was sitting on that desk,” Schaffer said. “If you are telling me a prosecutor trying a capital murder case can’t get a video that was in evidence and put it in a machine instead of grabbing the video that’s been excluded, do they deserve to keep a conviction when they conduct themselves like that?

“This trial has been replete with discovery violations, Brady violations, the whole shooting match. There was nothing I could do from day one to get them to play straight. Of what value to this system is a conviction obtained without honor? That is the most deplorable act I have ever seen or heard any prosecutor commit in any trial in this country, much less a capital murder trial,” Schaffer told the judge.

First Assistant District Attorney Robert Moody, who tried the case with LaBorde and Christi Hunting Horse, declined comment after trial, saying he could not comment while the motion is pending.

Schaffer, of Houston, complained in pretrial hearings and throughout the trial that prosecutors did not timely provide him with evidence required to be turned over under the law and court orders, including witness lists, videos, recordings and potentially favorable offers to incarcerated witnesses. He said he was warned to expect unethical and shady dealings with prosecutors in the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office when he took the case.

Prosecutors were unable to play recorded phone conversations of Spratt talking to others from jail after Schaffer objected that the state did not provide him copies of the conversations on time. Johnson prohibited the state from playing the tapes for the jury on Wednesday after ruling that the tapes were not provided to the defense in accordance with his order.

Staff photo — Tommy Witherspoon