Guilty Or Terribly Wronged: Is Joe Bryan, In Prison For 30 Years, Innocent?

May 25, 2018
By: Catherine Townsend


Dead or unconscious woman's hand immobile on wooden floor. Stark black and white image.

Photo by: iStock/RapidEye


CLIFTON, TX — On October 15, 1985, popular fourth-grade teacher Mickey Bryan, 44, was found murdered in her bedroom in Clifton, Texas.

Mickey's nightgown was pulled up to the top of her thighs. She was naked from the waist down, and there was blood splattered all over the walls.

Her husband, beloved high school principal Joe Bryan, was charged with her murder and has been behind bars for the past 30 years.

The prosecution’s case against him was largely circumstantial and relied largely on the testimony of a police detective trained in blood-spatter analysis, Robert Thorman. Thorman, while boasting an impressive career in law enforcement, had actually only been trained to analyze blood spatter four months before Mickey's murder — in a 40-hour class. While the district attorney made sure the jury knew about the more than two decades Thorman had worked in law enforcement, he didn't make a point of how new he was to blood spatter analysis.

This week's New York Times Magazine takes another look at this crime — a classic Investigation Discovery–type story! — that shocked a small town, and investigates whether Joe Bryan may have been convicted due to poor police work and faulty forensics.

In a case with multiple twists and turns, including family secrets, questionable experts, and lurid rumors of homosexuality — serious questions are raised about the integrity of one investigation in a small town.

The love story that would end so violently had a sweet start. Mickey and Joe, who had known each other since elementary school, married in 1969. According to friends and family, they appeared to be happy and devoted to each other.

Both Joe and Mickey were dedicated teachers, and they moved to Clifton in 1975 after Joe was offered the job of principal.

The couple could often be seen around town, strolling hand-in-hand and deep in conversation. Though both loved children, they were never able to have any of their own.

At the scene, investigators were under huge pressure to make an arrest in a small town where violent crime was rare. Making the investigation more complex, another murder — of a 17-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted and suffocated four months earlier — was still unsolved, and scaring residents.

Detectives determined that Mickey had been shot four times, once in the abdomen and three times in the head. Due to the tiny lead pellets that were embedded in Mickey's skin, they developed a theory that she had been shot with a .357 pistol. Joe told detectives that he kept a .357 loaded with birdshot to shoot the snakes that sometimes came into the yard.

When Joe voluntarily spoke to police — without a lawyer present — he claimed that he had last spoken to his wife from his hotel room where he was staying for a conference at around 9 P.M. on Monday, October 14. He said that they had discussed grading papers and the weather, and that nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

For him to have committed the murder, he would have to have driven 120 from the Hyatt during the night, shot Mickey, driven back to Austin, and gone back to his hotel room before the conference's morning session, at which he was seen by several witnesses.

A few days later, Mickey's older brother Charlie Blue, who had flown in from Florida, gave police a lead. According to a sworn affidavit, Blue called private investigator Bud Saunders to ask for help in investigating his sister's death.

Blue borrowed Joe's car, which he drove for four days. During this time, according to Blue, he pulled over while Saunders was riding with him so that they could relieve themselves. He claimed that, while doing so, Saunders got mud on his boots, and that when he opened the trunk to look for something to clean them with, he saw a cardboard box containing a flashlight with "what appeared to me to be blood specks on the lens," Blue wrote.

Blue said that he and Saunders then drove back to the house and went inside before driving to a pay phone to call the Texas Rangers.

According to the New York Times Magazine, there were parts of the story that the Clifton Police Department should have investigated — including why the men went inside the home, and why they did not immediately call law enforcement.

Police executed a search warrant on the Mercury and found the flashlight. The specks on the flashlight lens were determined to be human blood, type O — the same blood type as Mickey’s, but not Joe’s.

On October 23, Joe was arrested and charged with his wife's murder. He was shunned by many of his old friends and Mickey's family, and forced to resign from his job as an educator — a move that reportedly devastated him.

Since there were no eyewitnesses, no motive, and no conclusive evidence, the prosecution based almost its entire case on the flashlight.

At the time, departments were using the relatively new technology of bloodstain-pattern analysis — the examination of the shape, dimension, location, and distribution of bloodstains — to help solve crimes.

Expert witness Thorman claimed that the particular pattern on the flashlight lens was a pattern known as "blowback or, as commonly known, back spatter" — which signified blood that had traveled backward at a high velocity, and indicated a shooting.

Joe's fingerprints were on the flashlight, but Joe stated that this would have made sense due to the fact that the flashlight was his, but that he had last seem it in the bedroom.

Other evidence appeared to point away from Joe: Two human hairs found in the cardboard box in the trunk did not match either of the Bryans. Potentially the most significant clue was an unidentified palm print on the headboard of the bed that did not match Joe. But since Mickey's palm prints were taken incorrectly, they could not be used for comparison.

There was also the question of the reported $300,000 in insurance money that Mickey left behind. Had Blue, as the defense stated at trial, made a claim for the money? Could he have put the flashlight in the trunk?

At trial, Joe insisted he never left his hotel room after he spoke with Mickey on the evening of October 14, and that he had nothing to do with his wife's death. But, nonetheless, the jury convicted him, and sentenced him to 99 years in prison.

In 1988, the case took another strange turn when Joe's conviction was overturned on a technicality, and he was released for a short period of time. He was then tried again, convicted again, and once again sentenced to 99 years behind bars.

Now 77, Joe is currently incarcerated at Walls Unit in Huntsville.

Part II of the yearlong investigation, which was conducted in partnership with ProPublica, will be published in The New York Times Magazine next week.

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