By Fiona Deane-Grundman
Kerry Abrams, the dean of Duke Law School, introduced the celebration of the renaming of the Center for Science at Justice at Duke Law, which included a panel discussion moderated last week by Brandon Garrett with guests journalist Pamela Colloff, Texas parolee Joe Bryan, and Duke Law student Sarah Richardson, who worked on an amicus brief in Bryan’s case.
The event commenced virtually, with Duke law students, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members tuning in from around the world.
Abrams took a moment to recognize the passing of “a great American jurist,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She went on to explain that the Center was created a year ago in order to “galvanize research that fosters and interrogates the use of science in the criminal legal system, educate a new generation of lawyers who will contribute to criminal justice reform, and create opportunities to work with community partners to use academic research to improve the lives of actual people.”
Some of the work done in the Center’s inaugural year include Brandon Garrett and a large group of researchers, psychiatrists, and statisticians monitoring the implementation of the federal consent decree, contributing to national bail reform efforts.
Garrett is an esteemed professor at the Duke University School of Law who studies wrongful convictions, corporate crime, and the death penalty. He has published five books on this subject.
Abrams introduced alumnus Derek Wilson, whose $5 million grant will bolster legal and scientific data-driven research at Duke Law School that specifically addresses criminal justice reform, according to president Vincent E. Price.
Abrams said, “We need change that addresses systemic racial inequalities. Police shootings, as horrific as they are, are just the tip of the iceberg. Racial bias exists throughout the country in the criminal legal system. For example, techniques of criminal enforcement including fines, fees, criminal debt, and driver’s license suspension have a disproportionate burden or racial minorities and the poor.”
Wilson’s remarks were followed by Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry who spoke about the county’s work with the Wilson Center, which began in 2019 when she was sworn in.
She explained their collaboration process, stating, “Brandon and I along with some policy experts in our office developed a couple of projects that we could work on together to start to understand the work that we do, how we do our work, and how our work really impacts defendants and victims and create an overall strategic vision for our policy.”
Following Deberry’s remarks were remarks by various others including Mia King, an attorney litigating a class action lawsuit with the North Carolina ACLU challenging cash bail practices in Athens County, and Melissa Larson, the Law Enforcement Program Manager at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.
She spoke of the need for an effective community-based alternative to policing, saying that her program seeks “to divert individuals who commit low level drug offenses or engage in sex work to sustain drug use” from “the traditional criminal justice system” into “a behavioral health model of care.”
She described “a range of harm reduction services such as access to syringe exchange and linkage to care to appropriate treatment and recovery based services within the community.” She said emphatically, “Compliance is not required to be engaged in these services. We want to meet people where they are. If they’re seeking housing we go that route. If they’re seeking food, we go that route.”
The panel discussion kicked off with Colloff discussing how she began to get involved with criminal justice and more specifically, Bryan’s case.
She said, “I first learned of Joe’s case from his appellate attorneys in 2017 and I was immediately intrigued of course by the facts of the case, but I had been looking for some time for a story that would explain the personal toll of junk forensic science as a way of getting the average reader to care.”
Bryan’s case, the subject of Colloff’s 2018 long-read for ProPublica and The New York Times, “Blood Will Tell” was one of immense controversy at the time it was tried in 1986. It involved the brutal killing of a quiet and beloved fourth-grade teacher, Mickey Bryan, in the small town of Clifton, Texas, and the eventual conviction of her husband and school principal Joe Bryan.
Colloff said, “Joe’s case on its face seemed so bizarre; he had such an upstanding life and reputation, was so beloved by everyone in his community, had a beautiful marriage, and so there were many questions as to how it was he came to be convicted of this crime.”
Bryan, who has spent 33 years in prison and has yet to be absolved of the crime, spoke of the psychological toll of losing his wife and subsequently being charged and tried for her murder.
“It has not been easy to deal with, even today,” he said. speaking to Colloff, Garrett, and Richardson via Zoom. “One day everything is fine in your life, you’re happily married, you love your job, you’re respected in your professional area and community, and the next day when your wife has been killed and you’re the dregs of the coffee pot.
“Everything that you worked for is gone. Your most significant other is gone. Then shock of all shocks, I was arrested for Mickey’s murder. I told them from the very beginning I did not do it- that’s not what they wanted to hear. They wanted to convict someone and they did what they had to do,” he said.
Bryan has maintained his innocence to this day. His conviction rests on one main piece of evidence: a flashlight Mickey Bryan’s brother found in the trunk of Joe Bryan’s car after Mickey’s death, with what appeared to be red flecks of blood on it. However, when viewed in the context of today, it is dubious at best whether what originally convicted Joe would stand up in a court today.
What surprised Sarah Champion, a 3L student who worked on the case through the Wilson Center, was the certainty with which the experts presented the Blood Spatter analysis in this case.
“Mr. Bryan’s case is an example of an analyst really overstating the conclusion that it’s possible to draw,” she said. Champion researched recent studies in blood spatter analysis, current standards for blood-stain analyst training, the role of fluid dynamics, as well as the accuracy of our measures for measuring droplets distance from the source in order to better understand Bryan’s case.
Robert Thorman, the Blood Spatter Analyst in the 1986 trial, testified that a firearm was held 48 inches from the victim, a flashlight was held inches away from the weapon, and a fan was on 3 inches from shooting. Champion believes his testimony was far too specific considering the available evidence.
Thorman’s version of events would have a hard time standing up in a court today, according to Champion. “None of these conclusions are supported by the current state of research on blood spatter analysis; they’re all far too specific,” she said.
Champion believes that “Blood Spatter Analysis” can be useful as a “dramatic narrative tool for illustrating that specific act of violence,” but that there should be a greater awareness that “the way it is presented has a huge impact on the way it’s received by juries.”
She stated that “Blood Spatter Analysis isn’t entirely junk science but it is not ironclad proof of a way a crime scene played out.”
As part of her investigative work, Colloff took the same 40-hour class as Thorman did to experience the training that renders someone an “expert” in the eyes of the law.
“One of the things that was so troubling about my class” she said, was that “we were instructed after four days to reconstruct a crime scene with just blood spatter,” she said, expressing concern at the simplistic nature of blood spatter analysis, and stated that it can be especially dangerous when it is presented as definite to “scientifically illiterate judges” and “juries that are watching CSI,” and that it has resulted in a number of wrongful convictions.
Notably, in Bryan’s case, the authorities never tested the droplets on the flashlight to see if they were blood. There was “basic police work that hadn’t happened,” said Colloff. “It wasn’t as much an investigation so much as confirming wrong assumptions from day one.”
When Garrett asked her why Bryan hadn’t gotten relief from the habeas and appellate judges after his multiple appeals with help from the Texas Innocence Project, Colloff said, “after a lengthy and revelatory evidentiary hearing, there’s a lack of rigor and a lack of willingness” to look into issues with the case from the past.”
She questioned whether the problem is “complacency” or people being “unwilling to open what is clearly a Pandora’s Box.” The danger with granting Bryan relief, according to Colloff, is that
“if you really look at Joe’s case, you’d have to undo some other cases as well.”
Colloff recalled Bryan’s most recent hearing, including the reading of an affidavit from Thorman, who did not appear in court, which said, in Collof’s words, “I was wrong.”
The letter, read by a blood spatter analyst who did post-conviction work, was “chilling, and also tragic” because after decades, “the truth is finally coming out, but even that is not enough” to exonerate Bryan.
Bryan recalls that when he was tried for the first time, “they were making all these allegations about distances and where Mickey was in the bed and where the shooter was and I’m thinking, how can they possibly know that unless they were there or they talked to someone who was?”
He said that he feels somewhat vindicated about the new DNA evidence that has come out in support of his statements, including that neither his nor Mickey’s DNA was present on the flashlight that was supposed to be theirs, but that it is frustrating that the courts are “not willing to admit they’re wrong.”
Bryan also briefly spoke about his suspicions about who really killed his wife, a man who happened to be on the police force at the time of Mickey Bryan’s murder.
“We think we know who did it but we don’t have any DNA evidence that he did,” he said. “The fact that he committed suicide and admitted to his wife that he was there at Mickey’s house the night of the crime…particularly when he was convicted of killing a high school student 3 or 4 months earlier,” are compelling pieces of evidence against Ex-Clifton police officer Dennis Dunlap, who committed suicide in 1996.
Dunlap was written off as a suspect in the beginning of the investigation for unknown reasons.
Bryan admonished a culture in small-town America that “believes in the local policing agencies” no matter what, a mindset that tends to breed dishonest behavior and corruption.
In answer to the question of why the state continues to fight to uphold the conviction despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Colloff said, “I think Joe’s case is especially illuminating for this question. In some cases where a DA’s office is fighting what seems to be clearly exculpatory evidence of innocence, you still have stakeholders from the original prosecution in the office” trying to uphold their reputation or status.
“What I think this had to do with was the very culture of DA’s offices that are really not geared toward any sort of reexamination,” she continued. She added that there is a “refusal to really look at mistakes they might have made and a lack of willingness to correct them.”
When asked about a journalist’s role and duty in a case like Joes, Colloff said she believes that her purpose was “to shine a light on things in the same way that your amicus brief did,” referring to the amicus brief that researchers such as Champion worked on at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice that helped gain parole for Bryan. Because Bryan had been incarcerated for 30+ years, she felt that her role was to remind people “he’s still there, this still happened” and to provide “the context and nuances of a case that often are completely lost in the courtrooms” due to the rules of evidence. “I can tell Joe’s whole story,” she said. She continued, “In this way the law and journalism can be very complementary of each other because through “explaining to people who he is, what his life was about,” Colloff was able to sow enough doubt in Joe’s conviction that professionals and public citizens alike wanted to see him walk free.
Despite being released into a world infected by COVID-19 and technologically advanced beyond his wildest dreams, Bryan expressed gratitude for his health and a continuing passion to prove his innocence in the eyes of the law. “I’ve been telling you the truth all these years and nobody wanted to hear me or believe me,” he said, and doesn’t intend to “shut up”. “I’m 80 years old, I still have a life, I’m still concerned about my reputation.” He added, “I don’t like injustice, I never did.” He said that in his many years as an educator, “you will never find a student who said I was unfair or unjust in anything I did.”
In regard to the larger implications of the case, Colloff said that she believes that the amicus brief stands as an important record of its own” and hopes that it will be used in future appeals that bring into question the certainty of Bloodstain Spatter Analysis. She thinks that there must be an overall reevaluation of qualified immunity, and called for a “culture shift” to address these fundamental failings in the criminal justice system. “For as long as DA offices and law enforcement agencies are rewarded for the bad guys they’re locking up rather than serving justice to their community, I think we’re going to still see this kind of activity,” she said.
However, both Collof and Bryan expressed hope for the Wilson Center to continue the work of helping legal professionals become people more scientifically literate, building a body of knowledge, and continuing to address failings in the criminal justice system.
As for Bryan, he has received “hundreds of letters and mails from people all over the world about my case” and that when he got the information about the amicus brief “I just sat down and wept.” About his story, he said “if it helps just one person then it’s been worth it.”
Bryan, whose birthday fell on the same day as the event, is committed to not “dwell on the past” now that he is out on parole. He paused for a moment, his voice thick with emotion, and said, “It’s wonderful to be out. My family is here- a very emotional time but wonderful.”
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