In October 1985, fourth-grade teacher Mickey Bryan was found dead in her Clifton, Texas, home. Her husband Joe Bryan, who was a high school principal, became an immediate suspect. The following year, he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Currently out on parole, the widowed husband has continued to assert his innocence since day one. Now decades later, authorities are still struggling to piece this case together.
In a new two-hour 20/20 special airing on Oct. 15, 2021, reporter Amy Robach investigates Mickey Bryan's murder, as well as another unsolved murder in town, which may be connected.
Judy Whitley was also found dead in Clifton, Texas, in June 1985.
Just months before Mickey was found, 17-year-old Judy Whitley's body was found partially clothed on a field. Authorities named Dennis Dunlap, a local policeman, as a suspect in the case. However, there was never enough evidence to charge him with murder. In 1996, he died by suicide.
The evidence that led to Joe Bryan's conviction was said to be faulty.
In May 2018, ProPublica senior reporter Pamela Colloff wrote a two-part piece in collaboration with the New York Times titled "Blood Will Tell." In the piece, she questioned the integrity of the expert forensic testimony used to convict Bryan (his conviction was largely based on a bloodstain analysis). This technique, while still in use throughout the criminal justice system, has often raised credibility concerns.
During an evidentiary hearing later that year, retired police detective Robert Thorman, who previously performed the bloodstain-pattern analysis, wrote: “My conclusions were wrong. ... Some of the techniques and methodology were incorrect. Therefore, some of my testimony was not correct."
In 2020, Bryan was granted parole after eight failed attempts beginning in 2007. The reason for the board’s decision is unknown; however, it may have been prompted by the bloodstain's reassessment.
Bestselling author John Grisham has been a longtime supporter of Bryan's, and prior to Bryan's release, the writer wrote to the parole board asserting Bryan's innocence. Grisham's 2019 thriller The Guardians was based in part on Bryan’s story. The podcast Wrong Convictions with Jason Floam also covered Bryan's story. Meanwhile, a Facebook group titled Justice for Joe Bryan continues to rally for his freedom.
Not everyone is convinced that Bryan is innocent, however. His sister-in-law, Penny Blue, believes he is guilty. "I want him right where he is. I truly believe he is a very dangerous person," she told Robach during an interview featured in the 20/20 episode.
While Bryan is no longer incarcerated, he has not been exonerated of his charges. He continues to work with the Innocence Project of Texas to clear his name. As of October 2021, the ankle monitor that he had been wearing since released on parole was removed, according to a post in Justice for Joe Bryan. The group has started a campaign to raise funds for him.
20/20 airs Fridays from 9:01 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. EDT on ABC. Episodes can also be streamed on ABC News digital platforms and Hulu.