Former Clifton High School Principal Joe Bryan took his first breath of freedom in 32 years Tuesday when he was released from prison on parole after serving time for a murder he insists he did not commit.
Bryan, 79, who is suffering from congestive heart failure and a variety of related ailments, hugged his nieces Tuesday morning as they rushed up to him yelling, “Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe.”
Bryan had a wide smile as he walked in line with other inmates being released Tuesday in Huntsville. He quickly was greeted by two dozen family members, friends, supporters and his writ lawyers, Jessi Freud and Walter M. Reaves Jr., of Waco, and Shea Place, his parole attorney from Gatesville.
“I was told by one of the captains in Huntsville this morning that there is a lot of family and friends and a lot of other people out there and just don’t be hugging everybody and to keep my distance because of the coronavirus,” Bryan said in his first media interview since his release. “Well, that is like telling a dog to stay out of the meat house.”
Speaking by phone from his brother’s house in Houston, Bryan said his first meal outside of prison walls was a double-meat, bacon cheeseburger with french fries from Whataburger.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” he said. “It was like eating fine dining at a real restaurant because it all tasted so good. Everything is so good right now.”
Before he was approved for parole earlier this month, Bryan had been denied parole seven times in the 1985 shooting death of his wife, Mickey, an elementary school teacher in Clifton. Bryan has never wavered in his innocence claims through two trials, multiple appeals 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 said he thinks he could have been paroled earlier if he had only told parole officials what they wanted to hear — that he killed his wife and that he is sorry and rehabilitated.
“I think if I had admitted to it, I would have been out years ago,” he said. “When was I first eligible for parole? 1996. After 1996, I would have been eligible for parole and it’s been 14 years since then. I did 14 years extra. But I didn’t do it and I am not going to admit to something that I didn’t do. We proved in a court of law that several people were not telling the truth and that others were wrong and that I was innocent, and they don’t want to admit that. That is their problem.”
Freud, who spent thousands of hours with Reaves and the Innocence Project of Texas trying to prove Bryan’s innocence or, at the very least, win him a new trial, said there was no chance she and Bryan would be practicing safe distancing because of the COVID-19 outbreak. They shared a long hug, she said.
“Obviously, our preference and what we were hoping for was to exonerate Joe and have him come home under those circumstances,” Freud said. “But because of his age and because of his health, obviously we are thrilled and grateful that he was released on parole. The most important thing was him not dying in a place where he never should have been, and with him being on parole, we at least know he is not going to die in prison.”
Bryan said he relied on his faith and his God-given positive attitude to survive decades of being locked up for a crime he says he did not commit.
“You can do several things. You can be mad at the world every day and be hateful to everybody and be a very angry person or you can act like you are naturally,” he said. “That’s what I tried to do. Yes, I was very angry and I was mad at God about it. I thought he was punishing me for something else I had done.
“But then I got to the point where I just turned myself over to God. I turned everything over to him and I let him deal with it and he helped me get through it. I have depended on Jesus Christ to comfort me and protect me, and he has done an amazing job of doing it. This is a very good day, and I am so thankful.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported only that Bryan’s parole was approved. Officials with the agency have declined to say whether health concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic or his declining health were factors in the decision.
Freud acknowledged the irony of Bryan being released after three decades during the widespread coronavirus pandemic, when everyone is being asked to stay home. She said that will not affect Bryan that much, because the prison fitted him with an ankle monitor and he possibly will be placed on house arrest at least during the early stages of his parole.
“Being under house arrest with your family is still a lot better than being in prison,” Freud said.
“Whatever it takes to do this, I will do it, like I always have,” he said.
Bryan, who was wearing a prison-issued orange and blue plaid shirt, wrinkled khaki slacks and white tennis shoes, will live with his older brother, James, and his sister-in-law, Joretta, in Houston, Freud said.
Bryan was sentenced to 99 years in prison in his wife’s death after his second trial in Comanche in 1989. He will be on parole the rest of his life. Bryan’s first conviction was overturned on appeal.
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.
In their efforts to prove Bryan’s innocence, Reaves and Freud found experts who said Bryan’s trials were replete with errors, including the work of the ill-trained investigator who testified about blood-spatter evidence.
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.
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