A DA refuses DNA testing for a likely innocent man in prison for 30 years
On Monday, there will be a hearing for Joe Bryan in the Comanche County Courthouse in Comanche.
For the past 30 years, Joe Bryan has been in prison based on a highly questionable conviction for killing his wife. Bryan, who was a highly regarded high school principal in Clifton, is now 77 years old and has never wavered in his innocence.
Recent activity and attention on his case has further solidified the strong case for Bryan’s innocence. Last month, the Texas Forensic Science Commission held a hearing on the bloodstain pattern evidence presented in this 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 away 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 wrote a series of articles in the New York Times with ProPublica tracing the history of the Bryan case and detailing how the state’s bloodstain pattern evidence was presented by an unqualified witness and was scientifically invalid.
Colloff’s reporting once again has focused national attention on Texas and its criminal justice system. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous progress made statewide to free innocent people from prison and address the 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 had been the assistant district attorney in the county since July 2012 and has been the district attorney 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 of Bryan’s innocence.
Texas has had more than 50 DNA exonerations, with almost half from Dallas County. Many of the Dallas County exonerees had their initial requests for DNA testing thwarted, even with the passing of the 2001 testing bill, and delayed by prosecutors using the same tactics as Sibley. In a number of cases where DNA testing was finally allowed, the evidence showed that the real perpetrators of the offense had gone on to commit other offenses.
Michael Morton of Texas, one of the best-known exonerees in the country, had the same experience: languishing in prison for decades while prosecutors used the same tactics Sibley is using to fight against 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 past decade. The 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.
Sibley’s position is unjustified, legally and morally. Texans, including prosecutors, have stepped up to deal with the problem of wrongful convictions. The results have been impressive. Hopefully, Sibley will study this history and join the vast majority of Texas prosecutors who take seriously their oath to seek justice.
Mike Ware is the 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.