The Flashlight Helped Convict Him. Maybe It Shouldn't Have

Part II of the investigation into Mickey Bryan's 1985 death
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 6, 2018 5:49 PM CDT
He Began Digging Into the 1985 Murder, Found Something
Amid the report’s technical language, one detail stood out—a single sentence about the flashlight, which stated: “'A presumptive test for blood was negative on the lens.' In other words, the test could not confirm that what looked like blood spatter was actually blood."   (Getty Images)

We'll start with the spoiler: The second and final part of Pamela Colloff's deep investigation for ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine into the 1985 murder of Clifton, Texas, schoolteacher Mickey Bryan doesn't wrap up in a neat little bow. Her husband, Joe, remains in prison, serving a 99-year sentence while still maintaining his innocence. As Colloff explained in Part I, the jury believed an "extraordinary sequence of events" as laid out by the prosecution: That Joe spoke with his wife at 9pm, drove 120 miles from Austin where he was attending a conference, killed her with no apparent motive, and made it back to the hotel and to the next morning's session, with not a single witness seeing this. A blood-speckled flashlight found in the trunk of his car, which was otherwise devoid of blood, had been key; a bloodstain-pattern analyst placed it in the hand of the killer—Joe, decided the jury.

Colloff goes to great lengths to cast doubt on that analysis: She took a 40-hour course in bloodstain-pattern analysis much like the one Robert Thorman, the prosecution's analyst, had taken. Her takeaway: "I was struck by how open to error this enterprise was." And as for the blood, she flags an odd line from a 2012 reexamination of the flashlight: A test couldn't confirm the flecks were definitively blood. She also follows W. Leon Smith, the longtime editor of the Clifton Record, who in 1991 began a deep investigation into Mickey's death and that of Judy Whitley, a 17-year-old who had been murdered four months prior to Mickey. Thanks in part to his digging, Judy's murder was eventually solved, attributed to Clifton cop Dennis Dunlap, who resigned and skipped town a month after Judy's death and killed himself in 1996. In the wake of his suicide, one of his ex-wives told law enforcement that he told her had been with Mickey the night she died. Read all of Part II for more on that thread and where Joe's final appeal stands. (More Longform stories.)

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