The New York Times recently published two exceptional pieces of investigative reporting by Pamela Colloff about the conviction of Joe Bryan for the alleged murder of his wife. I cannot say with absolute certainty that he is innocent of these charges. But I can say the story the state used to convict him is exceptionally implausible:
Thorman’s testimony had been critical, because the state’s theory of the case posited an extraordinary sequence of events. Prosecutors asked the jury to believe that between 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1985, when the Bryans spoke by phone, and the following morning, when Mickey was found shot to death, Joe slipped out of his hotel in Austin; drove 120 miles to Clifton, at night, through heavy rain, even though he had an eye condition that made night driving difficult; shot his wife, with whom he had no history of conflict; drove 120 miles back to Austin; re-entered the hotel; and stole upstairs to his room — all in time to clean up and attend the conference’s morning session, and all without leaving behind a single eyewitness.
So what forensic evidence did the state have?
The main piece of evidence they had was the blood-speckled flashlight that Charlie Blue found four days after the murder in the trunk of Joe’s car. What connection it had to the crime, if any, was unclear; the blood on it was type O, which corresponded not only to Mickey but also to nearly half the population. To secure a guilty verdict, the prosecution needed to tie the flashlight to the crime scene. With the unassailable certainty of an expert, Thorman testified that the flecks of blood on the flashlight lens were “back spatter” — a pattern that indicated a close-range shooting. He wove a narrative that placed the flashlight in the killer’s hand. He also allowed the prosecution to explain away the lack of blood in the interior of Joe’s car when he asserted that the killer had changed his clothes and shoes before fleeing the house. Thorman’s testimony was decisive, making the state’s tenuous theory seem plausible. But jurors at the first trial did not know that, at the time, the only formal training Thorman had in the forensic discipline was a weeklong class. He took it four months before Mickey’s murder.
In other words, as Colloff goes on to demonstrate in detail, he was convicted of the crime based almost solely on junk science described in testimony by an “expert” with no actual expertise.
BREAKING: Joe Bryan, whose case I chronicled for @ProPublica & @NYTmag, was denied parole. He's 77, in poor health, has spent 30+ years in prison & has pristine disciplinary record. And the forensic science that helped convict him is questionable at best. https://t.co/vfNULFCxSq
— Pamela Colloff (@pamelacolloff) June 13, 2018
One of the glories of our criminal justice system is that the fact that Bryan is almost certainly innocent and won’t pretend otherwise actually makes it harder for him to get parole, as parole boards want to see contrition.
Basically, although at least Bryan didn’t get executed this is Cameron Todd Willingham Part II — someone convicted of a horrible crime it’s very unlikely he committed based on “science” with about as much value as astrology. Indeed, in some respects the case against Bryan is even weaker; at least Willingham was clearly physically present in the house when the fire started.