Former Clifton High School principal Joe Bryan has been approved for parole after more than three decades of asserting his innocence in the 1985 shooting death of his wife, Mickey.
Bryan, 79, has been denied parole seven previous times and has never wavered in his innocence claims through two trials, multiple appeals, requests for additional DNA testing and writ hearings at which the forensic expert who testified at Bryan’s trials in Bosque and Comanche counties admitted his conclusions were wrong.
Bryan is now suffering from congestive heart failure and has been housed at the Stiles prison unit in Beaumont. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice website confirmed Bryan’s parole Friday.
Gatesville attorneys Shea Place and her father, Allen Place, are Bryan’s parole attorneys. Shea Place has not spoken to Bryan since his parole was approved but said Friday he is expected to live with a family member when he is released from prison, which could take up to a month to 45 days.
“We are very pleased with the board’s decision,” Shea Place said, guarding her words carefully until Bryan is freed.
Waco attorneys Jessi Freud and Walter M. Reaves Jr. spent thousands of hours working to prove Bryan’s innocence and to win him a new trial as his writ attorneys. Freud said Friday she would defer comment until Bryan is released.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Bryan’s application for a writ of habeas corpus in January, which was based in part on new concessions from a forensic expert who admitted that his trial testimony concerning blood-spatter evidence was flawed.
Freud and Reaves had hoped a retired judge who conducted the writ hearings in Comanche County in 2018 would determine Bryan to be innocent, or at the very least, recommend to the Court of Criminal Appeals that he deserved a new trial. Neither of those happened.
Bryan has served more than three decades of a 99-year sentence in the death of his wife, an elementary school teacher in Clifton. Bryan’s first conviction was overturned, and he was convicted after a retrial.
In their efforts to prove Bryan’s innocence, Reaves and Freud found experts who said Bryan’s trials were rife with errors, including the work of an ill-trained investigator who testified about blood-spatter evidence. The attorneys got the investigator in the original case to admit at a writ hearing that he botched his initial interpretation of crime-scene blood patterns. He eventually acknowledged that he was wrong.
Bryan was more than 100 miles away at an educators’ conference in Austin on the night his wife was shot and killed in the bedroom of their Clifton home. The attorneys’ efforts also turned up a viable alternative suspect, who was not investigated by local law enforcement officials.
Besides local media, Bryan’s case was chronicled in depth by Pamela Colloff, whose compelling stories about Bryan appeared in The New York Times and ProPublica and grabbed the attention of best-selling novelist John Grisham.
Grisham based the plot of his latest legal thriller, “The Guardians,” in part on Bryan’s case after he read Colloff’s accounts.
Grisham is on the board of the Innocence Project in New York and became pen pals with Bryan. He visited Bryan in prison late last year and wrote a moving letter on Bryan’s behalf to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Freud said.
“I am very surprised and very excited for Joe to know that he will be getting out of prison,” Grisham said Friday by phone. “He is almost 80 and many of us were afraid that Joe would die in prison, and that is not going to happen now. I am very thankful to the parole board for taking this action and letting Joe out after 35 years. I can’t wait to talk to him when he gets home, and it is a very, very happy surprise. I never thought this would happen.”