Ex-Central Texas school principal’s bid for new trial falls short

Joe Bryan (far right) in court. (Photo by Pete Sousa/file)
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CLIFTON, Texas (KWTX) A state district judge who oversaw a three-day hearing earlier this year in Comanche in the bid to win a new trial for a former Clifton High School principal convicted of killing his wife won’t recommend a retrial.

Joe Bryan was convicted in 1986 of the shooting death of his wife, Mickey Bryan, who also worked at Clifton schools.

That sentence eventually was overturned but his 1989 re-trial ended with the same result – guilty of murder and a 99-year sentence.

Retired Judge Douglas Shaver, of Houston, presided over the hearing in the 220th District Court in Comanche during which the state and Bryan’s lawyers presented their arguments.

Shaver will present his finding of facts from the hearing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will make a final decision on whether Bryan gets a new trial.

Waco attorney Jessi Freud, who along with Waco attorney Walter Reaves, represents Bryan, says she’s hopeful the state’s highest criminal appeals court will judge the issues on their individual merits and return an order for new trial.

Freud and Reaves presented reams of evidence that they believed showed the original prosecutor used “junk science” as a forensic tool to secure the conviction.

Even the forensic scientist who testified at Bryan’s original trial about blood spatter found at the scene has said in recent months that his conclusions were wrong.

Bryan, at the time of his wife Mickey Bryan’s murder, was checked in at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, in Austin, preparing to attend a meeting of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, set for 8 a.m. the next day.

In his murder trials, prosecutors told the jury that between 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1985 when the two spoke by telephone, and sunup the next morning, when Mickey was found shot to death, Bryan slipped out of his Austin hotel unseen, drove 120 miles to Clifton in the dark and through a heavy rain storm, with an eye condition that made it nearly impossible for him to drive at night, shot his wife, in spite of the fact there was no history of conflict between them; drove 120 miles back to Austin; went back to the hotel and stole upstairs to his room with plenty of time left over to shower and clean up so he could make his 8 a.m. morning meeting.

At trial then-District Attorney Andy McMullen had what scientists told him was irrefutably positive evidence: blood spatter evidence.

Testimony in trial showed Mickey Bryan had been shot three times in the head and once in the abdomen at very close range, her report of autopsy showed.

Forensic tests provided McMillen with enough evidence during trial that he said the gun used was a .357-magnum pistol and that was never challenged.

But the murder weapon, itself, never was recovered.

Bryan was found guilty and sentenced to 99-years in state prison.

“Of the 250 DNA exonerations that occurred by 2010 throughout the United States, shoddy forensic work — which ranged from making basic lab errors to advancing claims unsupported by science — had contributed to half of them,” according to a review by the Innocence Project.

A 2009 study undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences issued a groundbreaking, and damning, report on the matter and found only inconsistencies.

“Its authors found that many forensic disciplines — including the analysis of blood spatter, hairs, bite marks, shoe and tire impressions and handwriting — were not as ‘scientific’ as they often (were) purported to be,” reporter Pamela Coloff wrote in a magazine article she produced for the New York Times.

“The report included a sobering appraisal of bloodstain interpretation,” and it said “Analysts’ opinions were often ‘more subjective than scientific,’ its authors warned, and open to ‘context bias.’

“In conclusion, the authors cautioned, ‘the uncertainties associated with bloodstain-pattern analysis are enormous,’” she said.