As W.Leon Smith neared the East Texas town of Huntsville, he did not know what to expect. It was a warm September day in 1991, and Smith, a mild-mannered 38-year-old newspaperman whose wire-rimmed glasses lent him a slightly owlish look, had come to interview an inmate named Joe Bryan. Once a beloved figure in the Central Texas town of Clifton, the former high school principal was serving a 99-year sentence for the murder of his wife, Mickey, an elementary-school teacher who was shot to death in their home six years earlier. Though Joe has always insisted on his innocence and the evidence prosecutors presented was entirely circumstantial — Joe was attending a conference 120 miles away, in Austin, around the time of the killing — he was convicted and sent away to the Walls Unit in Huntsville.
Smith, the editor in chief of The Clifton Record, had overseen the paper’s coverage of Joe’s trial and a subsequent retrial, but he had never stepped foot inside a prison, and as the Walls Unit came into view, he felt both excitement and apprehension. The maximum-security penitentiary, named for the towering ramparts that form its perimeter, houses what was then, and what remains, the most active death chamber in the country. Two days after Smith’s visit, a death-row inmate would be executed there by lethal injection. Bounded by guard towers and crowned by barbed wire, the Walls is a foreboding sight, and as Smith surveyed the red-brick monolith, he was awed by its magnitude. He could not help wondering how Joe, who had no criminal record before he was charged with his wife’s murder, had fared inside.
Smith was a prolific chronicler of small-town life, sometimes writing nearly every article on the weekly’s front page. He began working at The Record as a seventh grader in 1965, when his father bought the paper. After school and on nights and weekends, he did everything from running the printing press to sweeping the floors. He went off to college but then dropped out to get back into journalism, and for much of the 1970s, he worked for and then ran newspapers in small towns around North and Central Texas. By then, his father had sold The Record. Smith briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer before spending a year writing a novel about a black newspaperman in the fictitious Texas town of Emporia. In 1979, he and his father bought back The Record, and Smith became the editor. His amiable, unhurried manner and dogged reporting quickly earned him the trust of many people in Clifton. He had a fearsome work ethic, routinely pulling all-nighters, and if he took a rare break when he was on deadline, he often ventured no farther than the Cliftex movie theater next door to grab a box of popcorn.
What prompted his trip to Huntsville was a recent visit to The Record’s office from a Clifton man named Don Whitley. The Whitley family was struck by tragedy six years earlier, when Whitley’s 17-year-old daughter, Judy, was murdered, her nude body left in a cedar thicket on the western side of town. No one was ever apprehended, and the anniversary of Judy’s death had just passed. Whitley had little faith that local law enforcement was still looking for her killer. He told Smith that the Clifton police had abandoned his family — “They just walked away,” he said — and he asked if Smith would be willing to write to “Unsolved Mysteries” in the hope that the hit TV show might decide to dig into the case. The show should look at both of the 1985 murders, Whitley said. His daughter was killed just four months before Mickey Bryan, and he wondered if the crimes were somehow linked; exactly how, he wasn’t sure, but he thought they should be investigated together. Before these killings, no one could readily remember the last homicide in Clifton.
Moved by Whitley’s appeal and intrigued by the idea of revisiting the two crimes, Smith agreed to help. Though he had initially been skeptical of the state’s case against Joe, he was mindful that two juries had returned guilty verdicts. Smith’s wife, Carole, however, knew Joe and never believed he was capable of hurting Mickey. Smith contacted “Unsolved Mysteries,” and after a producer expressed interest in learning more, he settled on an ambitious plan: He would re-examine the evidence in the Bryan and Whitley cases, see if Joe would be willing to talk, then publish an article that would hopefully secure the show’s attention and jump-start the Whitley investigation. He wrote to Joe, whom he knew cursorily from covering the school district. “I have never had anything to hide and still don’t,” Joe wrote back, eager to talk, though the appeal of his second conviction was still pending. “If this could help the Whitley family and me, then surely God has answered some prayers.” He added, “I appreciate your efforts in this more than you can possibly understand.”
Smith informed Clifton’s police chief, Jim Vanderhoof, of his coming interview, and the chief — who joined the force after the murders took place and shared a good working relationship with Smith — suggested that he come to the station to look through the evidence boxes. Vanderhoof let Smith spend two days with the Bryan file. Sifting through the stacks of notes, reports and crime-scene photos, Smith was immediately struck by the number of leads no one had followed up on. Most conspicuous among them was a report about two men seen shortly after midnight at the local Ford dealership on Oct. 16, 1985 — roughly 16 hours after Mickey’s body was found. Each had a lengthy rap sheet that included weapons offenses; one had also been charged with theft and invasion of privacy. The reporting officer noted that one of the men was seen standing beside a van “that had just been spray-painted green from the color white.” The man claimed he was getting the van, which had no license plates, ready for a hunting trip. Smith was a naturally inquisitive reporter, and as he read more of the case file, his mind began to race with questions.
By the time he arrived at the Walls and was escorted past several heavy mechanical gates that snapped closed behind him, he was consumed by a need to understand what happened to Mickey Bryan. As he took a seat on one side of a glass partition, he was less startled by the sight of Joe in a white prison jumpsuit — slightly heavier than Smith remembered but otherwise unchanged — than he was focused on the long list of questions on his yellow legal pad. He began by asking Joe about his confinement, and despite the austerity of their surroundings, they fell into the easy, discursive rhythm of two people catching up on old news. Joe noted that his cell, which he shared with another inmate, measured five feet by nine feet. “You hardly have room to even move if both of you stand up at the same time,” he said with a laugh.
During the wide-ranging four-hour interview, which was later published in three installments, Smith pressed Joe about various aspects of the state’s case. Of the flashlight speckled with blood that Mickey’s brother, Charlie Blue, claimed to have found in the trunk of Joe’s Mercury, he said, “I did not put that flashlight in the car.” When Smith asked about the prominent role that Joe’s brother-in-law played in the prosecution, he professed more befuddlement than bitterness. Of Blue’s decision to hire a private investigator without his knowledge, he wondered, “Why not consult me and let me go in on it with him?” Joe reserved his anger for law enforcement, whom he accused of willfully ignoring clues, like the cigarette butt found on his kitchen floor and unidentified fingerprints, which he believed pointed to his wife’s killer. “They had to convict somebody — anybody,” Joe said. “So they went after me.”
As Smith listened to Joe, he began to consider whether a great miscarriage of justice had occurred. Joe sketched out the details of his tightly circumscribed existence, explaining that he held a clerical job that began each day at 4 a.m., and that informally, on his own time, he tutored inmates who were studying for the G.E.D. exam. “The teacher’s still in me,” he said. “It just thrills me when they come and ask me to help.” He told Smith he was allotted a five-minute phone call to a family member once every 90 days. TV, radio and his subscription to The Record kept him tethered to the outside world, but he said he longed for the everyday acts of kindness he once took for granted. “I miss encouragement, a compliment of a job well done, the touch of another human being,” he said. “You have no idea the loneliness that a person can feel in here.” His voice welled with emotion when he spoke of Mickey — “She was my life,” he told Smith — and as the interview drew to a close, he broke down. “I have wanted to die every day because of the hurt and humiliation, the embarrassment, the accusations that are false, the injustice that’s been done.”
During Smith’s three-hour drive back to Clifton, he was flooded with thoughts. As the piney woods of East Texas receded, he kept turning over a particular moment in his mind. It occurred after the interview was done. A guard had followed him outside, all the way to his car, telling him, as they walked, that many of the guards believed that Joe was innocent.
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