Joe Bryan

In this mid-1980s photo, Joe Bryan (right) leaves a courthouse with his attorney, the late Charles M. McDonald. Bryan was found guilty of shooting and killing his wife but has maintained his innocence and is working to have the conviction overturned.

Attorneys trying to prove former Clifton High School Principal Joe Bryan was wrongfully convicted in the 1985 shooting death of his wife gained valuable momentum last week at a meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

The findings of the nine-member commission reviewed Friday cast serious doubt on the reliability of evidence used to convict Bryan, especially the bloodstain pattern analysis that played a key role in Bryan’s trials.

Bryan’s case got before the commission after attorneys Walter M. Reaves Jr. and Jessi Freud filed a complaint, asking the panel to review the validity of the scientific evidence used to convict him.

“The significance of the meeting was that there was an expert who has been hired by a state agency and who is a state law enforcement officer who has reviewed the evidence and is convinced that the testimony about the blood spatter was erroneous,” Reaves said. “I think her characterization was ‘egregiously erroneous.’ ”

Celestina Rossi, a bloodstain-pattern analyst from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office crime lab, reported to the commission that testimony about blood spatter in Bryan’s trials was wrong and not supported scientifically.

Rossi could have a significant impact for the defense at a writ hearing next month in Comanche at which Reaves and Freud are expected to ask a visiting judge from Houston to declare Bryan innocent or at least to recommend that the Court of Criminal Appeals award him a new trial.

Senior Judge Doug Shaver has set aside three days for the Aug. 20 hearing and will forward his findings to the state’s highest criminal court for a ruling.

Adam Sibley, district attorney for the 220th Judicial District, which includes Bosque, Hamilton and Comanche counties, is defending Bryan’s conviction against the writ application. Sibley declined comment on the case Wednesday, saying he thinks it is improper to discuss pending cases.

Bryan, now 77 and suffering from congestive heart failure, is serving a 99-year sentence in the death of his wife, an elementary school teacher in Clifton. Bryan was convicted by two separate 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.

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 did not come to 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 Bryan was an implausible suspect because he would have had to drive more than 120 miles from Austin to Clifton, kill his wife between 3:25 and 4:25 a.m. and drive back to Austin in a pouring rain in time for an 8 a.m. meeting.

“The state’s case against Joe has always been incredibly weak,” Freud said. “After last Friday, it is nonexistent. Joe was in Austin when Mickey was shockingly and tragically killed. He is innocent.”

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Walter Reaves Jr.

Waco attorney Walter “Skip” Reaves looks over paperwork in his office. Reaves is preparing for an Aug. 20 hearing in Comanche County in which he hopes to convince a judge that Joe Bryan is innocent in the 1985 shooting death of his wife.

Reaves and Freud were buoyed by Rossi’s comments at the hearing. Reaves said they were “far more than I had expected.”

“The bloodstain-pattern analysis used to convict Joe was egregiously wrong,” Freud said. “Specifically, the stains on the flashlight that were testified to at trial as being back spatter stains, according to the comments made at Friday’s hearing by Ms. Rossi, she opined that the stains, in fact, are inconsistent with what you would expect to see for back spatter stains. At trial, the state’s theory was that the person who killed Mickey was holding the flashlight at that time and that the blood on the flashlight was back spatter from the gunshot. Ms. Rossi’s conclusion is different.”

The commission, created by the Legislature in 2005 to investigate the reliability of forensic science used in criminal cases, is made up of seven scientists, a district attorney and a defense attorney. Initially, the commission was created to investigate allegations of professional negligence or misconduct that affected the results of testing by an accredited laboratory.

The Legislature expanded the commission’s responsibilities 10 years later to take over accreditation oversight for Texas crime labs from the Texas Department of Public Safety. As a result, the commission is responsible for establishing policies to improve the qualify of forensic analyses used in criminal cases, according to the commission’s website.

Besides the forensic analysis questions, Reaves and Freud charge in their writ application that it was improper for the court to allow a family member of Mickey Bryan to hire a special prosecutor to assist the Bosque County DA’s office because it unfairly cast a bias against Bryan by making it appear like the family believed in his guilt.

Also, the attorneys allege a Texas Ranger and special prosecutor planted seeds that Bryan was gay, an undercurrent that ran through both trials and prejudiced the proceedings despite the lack of evidence of his sexuality or any domestic trouble between him and his wife.


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

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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