A three-day evidentiary hearing beginning Monday at the Comanche County Courthouse in nearby Comanche could determine if Joe Bryan one day goes free or continues to serve time. For the past 30 years, he has been in prison based on a highly questionable conviction for killing his wife. Once a well-regarded high school principal in Clifton, northwest of Waco, Bryan is now 77. He has never wavered in his innocence.
Recent activity and attention regarding his case has further strengthened arguments for Bryan’s innocence. Last month the Texas Forensic Science Commission held a hearing concerning bloodstain-pattern evidence presented in the case. This evidence was the linchpin of the prosecution case and has been strongly challenged by Bryan’s attorneys. At the hearing, the commission received testimony from Celestina Rossi of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office stating that the bloodstain-pattern evidence presented at Bryan’s trial was “egregiously wrong.”
This hearing followed years of litigation on Bryan’s behalf by Waco attorneys Walter Reaves, who serves on the board of directors of the Innocence Project of Texas, and Jessica Freud. The attorneys presented evidence that Bryan could not have committed this murder because he was more than 100 miles from Clifton attending a principals conference in Austin; that there was absolutely no reason for Bryan to harm his wife; and that the state relied on junk science to obtain a conviction. Moreover, evidence points to another suspect as the most likely perpetrator of this murder.
This summer former Texas Monthly executive editor Pam Colloff authored a series of articles in The New York Times with ProPublica tracing the history of the Bryan case — and how the state’s bloodstain-pattern evidence was presented by an unqualified witness and was scientifically invalid. Colloff’s reporting has once again focused national attention on Texas and our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous progress made statewide to free innocent people from prison and address causes of wrongful convictions, this time the Texas official with the power to do the right thing has refused to do so.
Adam Sibley, the Bosque County district attorney, is the prosecutor representing the state in the Bryan case. Sibley was not in this position 30 years ago when Bryan was convicted, but he was the assistant DA in this county since July 2012 and has been DA since January 2017. And he has steadfastly refused to consider the possibility of Bryan’s innocence, opposing DNA testing of crucial evidence. Someone murdered Joe Bryan’s wife and that person’s DNA may be found on this evidence — evidence that may both identify the true murderer and add to the strong case for Mr. Bryan’s innocence.
Texas has had more than 50 DNA exonerations, with almost half from Dallas County. Many Dallas County exonerees saw their initial requests for DNA testing thwarted, even with the passing of the 2001 testing bill, and further delayed by prosecutors using the same tactics Sibley now employs. In a number of cases where DNA testing was finally allowed, the evidence showed that the real perpetrators of the offenses had gone on to commit yet other crimes.
Michael Morton from Texas, one of the best-known exonerees in the nation, had the same experience: languishing in prison for decades while prosecutors used the same tactics Adam Sibley now uses to fight DNA testing in Bryan’s case. When Morton finally received the DNA test it both cleared him and identified the person who actually killed his wife.
The criminal justice system in Texas has undergone an evolution in the last decade. Current district attorneys in the five largest counties in the state (Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis) have formed Conviction Integrity Units within their offices to address wrongful convictions. As a result of this evolution, prosecutors in Texas rarely oppose DNA testing as they did in the past.
Sibley’s position is unjustified legally and morally. Texans, including prosecutors, have stepped forward to deal with the problem of wrongful convictions. The results have been impressive. Hopefully District Attorney Sibley will study this history and join the vast majority of Texas prosecutors who take seriously their oaths to seek justice above all else.
Mike Ware is executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, a statewide organization that works to free the wrongfully convicted from Texas prisons. From 2007 to 2010 Ware served as chief prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit.