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

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

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