A high school principal said he and his wife ‘had a wonderful life’ in an emotional jailhouse interview before being released from prison last year after 33 years for murdering her as he insists he’s innocent and will fight to clear his name.
Joe Bryan, 81 – who was recently interviewed for a segment on ABC’s 20/20 – was convicted of first-degree murder in April 1986 for the murder of his wife, Mickey Bryan, who had been shot in her bedroom in Clifton, Texas, four times with a .357 caliber revolver on October 14, 1985.
He was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 99 years in prison and after his eighth parole attempt, Joe – who has always maintained his innocence – was released on parole in March 2020.
‘I may get emotional. When you have your soul mate, and you love each other and respect each other, it makes life wonderful,’ Bryan tearfully told ABC‘s Amy Robach in a clip of his jailhouse interview released Friday morning, which was took place prior to his release.
‘And we had a wonderful life.’
Bryan fought back tears as he explained the moment he learned of his wife’s death, describing his response to the news as being ‘heartbroken’
Bryan (right) was arrested for Mickey’s (left) murder on October 23, just eight days after her death
Bryan fought back tears as he explained the moment he learned of his wife’s death, describing his response to the news as being ‘heartbroken.’
‘Instantly you know your life is not as it was. I said ‘what can you tell me?’ Do we know how?’ (The officer) said ‘all I know is that she’s dead.’
‘I was heartbroken,’ he said, voice cracking with emotion.
In an effort to further clear his name, Bryan’s attorneys presented new developments in the forensic testimony of retired police Det. Robert Thorman – who had performed the initial blood-stain analysis – at an evidentiary hearing in 2018.
In a sworn affidavit to the court, Thorman said ‘my conclusions were wrong, some of my testimony was not correct,’ ProPublica reported him saying just over a week after Bryan’s release in March 2020.
Throughout his time in prison, Joe’s defense team has tried to have his conviction overturned.
In 2016, they filed a complaint with the Texas Forensic Science Commission who reviewed Thorman’s analysis and testimony from 1985 and determined that it was ‘unreliable’.
‘False, it’s unscientific, and… the most horrifying thing I’ve ever read in my life,’ blood spatter expert Celestina Rossi testified of Thorman’s analysis.
They had the specks of blood on the flashlight tested with DNA technology in 2012 and 2018 but the results were inconclusive.
In 2018 the defense presented new evidence in attempt to secure a new trial, but the court decided not to grant the request.
Investigators had found evidence allegedly linking Bryan to the case after Mickey’s brother borrowed his car. He went to consult a friend who was a former FBI agent about his sister’s death when the pair reportedly found the aforementioned flashlight in the trunk, which appeared to have specks of blood and pieces of plastic on the lens that resembled bits found at the crime scene.
Pictured: the blood-stained flashlight found in Bryan’s trunk following the murder, which was used to implicate him in his wife’s death
Then in 2018, new developments called into question the blood evidence on the flashlight (pictured) which had been used to convict him
Although DNA forensics did not exist at the time, crime scene investigators determined that the blood on the flashlight matched Mickey’s blood type and the plastic pieces matched those found at the crime scene.
‘Who in their right mind would do what they said I was supposed to have done? And just leave the flashlight in the car, in the trunk?’ he said, referring to a blood-covered flashlight that had been found in his car and matched Mickey’s blood type.
Bryan claimed the last time he saw the flashlight was in the couple’s bedroom.
‘You’re stunned, like, how could they do this?’ Bryan said upon hearing the guilty verdict over 30 years ago.
‘And you’re innocent,’ he added.
‘I’m not a killer. I didn’t kill Mickey. I loved Mickey, she was my other self,’ he told ABC News.
‘I hope to be found actually innocent so it’s really truly over with. Then for the first time in 34 years I can have a sigh of relief, and I can go visit Mickey’s grave and tell her, ‘We know who did it.’
Bryan’s full 20/20 interview airs on ABC Friday at 9pm EST.
Meanwhile, Bryan and his family believe that former police officer Dennis Dunlap, who was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of Judy Whitley, a 17-year-old high school cheerleader who also lived in Clifton, may be responsible for Mickey’s death.
Bryan believes that former police officer Dennis Dunlap, who was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of Judy Whitley (pictured), may be responsible for Mickey’s death
Joe Bryan, a killer principal (left), has been released after 33 years behind bars for murdering his wife, Mickey (right) – but still insists he didn’t do it, and has now vowed to clear his name
‘I believe that if the Clifton Police Department and the Texas Rangers, along with the justice system, would have arrested Dennis Dunlap for the murder of Judy Whitley, Mickey would still be alive today, and my uncle obviously would not be in jail,’ said Cindy Bryan, Bryan’s niece.
Prosecutors insist Bryan is the killer, but his family has extremely powerful support in the form of thriller novelist John Grisham.
He based his 2019 book The Guardians on the case, and firmly believes Bryan is the victim of a miscarriage of justice caused by poor detective work.
Bryan claims he was at a principal’s conference in Austin, about 120 miles from their hometown of Clifton, the night that Mickey was murdered.
She was found dead the next morning by her boss after she didn’t show up to work.
Bryan’s story served as the inspiration for John Grisham’s 2019 novel The Guardians which tells the tale of a lawyer who was shot dead at his desk
Police initially thought her death was the result of a burglary that had gone wrong, noting that although there were no signs of forced entry, some jewelry and about $1,000 in cash was missing.
According to Bryan, he learned of Mickey’s death when a colleague pulled him out of the conference to notify him of the situation.
‘You don’t want to admit that your life [has] totally changed, and that someone would have the audacity to go [into] our home and kill the most precious person in your life,’ he said.
Along with finding the flashlight in his trunk, Bryan had also reported that he found the allegedly stolen cash in his car.
He claimed he had forgotten that the couple took the money with them for a shopping trip a few weeks prior. Police reportedly did not find the money in the vehicle.
Bryan was arrested for Mickey’s murder on Oct. 23, just eight days after her death.
During his trial, the prosecution argued that Joe left the conference, drove 130 miles to Clifton, a trip that takes around two hours each way, and murdered his wife before returning to Austin.
The prosecution’s argument relied heavily on the flashlight evidence and the testimony of police detective Robert Thorman, who had been trained in bloodstain pattern analysis.
Throman argued that the killer would’ve held the revolver – which was never found – and flashlight at the same time. He also said the killer would’ve needed to change their clothes and shoes to prevent leaving a bloody trail, which Bryan could’ve easily done in his own bedroom.
The prosecution also alleged life insurance payout as motive behind the slaying.
Meanwhile, the defense argued that it was ‘impossible’ for Bryan to drive roundtrip to Clifton, commit the murder and get back to Austin in time for his conference. He maintained he was asleep in his hotel room at the time of the death.
Regardless, Bryan was sentenced to first-degree murder in April and received the maximum penalty of 99 years in prison.
He appealed his conviction, and it was overturned because the judge had not allowed additional testimony about Mickey’s life insurance policy, which was reportedly worth half the amount stated in court.
Bryan was convicted of first-degree murder in April 1986 after Mickey had been shot in her bedroom in Clifton, Texas, four times with a .357 caliber revolver on October 14, 1985
Dunlap (pictured) has not been connected to Mickey’s death, and prosecutors say the late cop’s wife who made the claims about him dating Mickey is not a credible witness
Prosecutors tried Bryan again – in another town but with the same judge – and he was convicted a second time.
‘Everything you’ve worked for has been taken from you,’ he said of the verdict.
‘Everything you love has been taken from you. Everything materially that you had been taken from you. All you have is just yourself.’
In the 1990s local journalist Leon Smith, who has since passed away, began looking into the murder of Judy Whitley and wondered if it was connected to Mickey’s case.
The cheerleader was raped and killed in June 1985. Her body was found in a wooded area near a Clifton grocery store.
Former officer Dennis Dunlap, who had joined the force a few months before Whitley’s death, was considered a suspect in her murder, however there was not enough evidence to convict him.
Smith and Dunlap communicated via letter about the cold case with the cop outright denying any involvement.
The officer then took his own life in April 1996.
After his death, officers interviewed one of his ex-wives who claimed that Dunlap had ‘dated the lady that the principal murdered’.
‘All he told me was that he dated her. He was dating that lady… he was going, I want to say, I’m not for sure, he dropped her off that night or that evening [she was killed]’ the woman told authorities.
Investigators unsuccessfully attempted to pursue a posthumous indictment of Dunlap for Whitley’s murder and, in 1999, announced he was responsible for her death. The case was considered closed.
Dunlap has not been connected to Mickey’s death, and prosecutors say the late cop’s wife who made the claims about him dating Mickey is not a credible witness.
The prosecution rejected Dunlap’s ex-wife’s claims, saying her recollection was ‘spotty, uncertain and inaccurate.’
Bryan was also denied parole seven times over the past three decades.
His story served as the inspiration for John Grisham’s 2019 novel The Guardians which tells the tale of a lawyer who was shot dead at his desk.
In the book, the killer left behind no clues and there were no witnesses, real suspects or motives.
Grisham says he believes that Bryan is innocent and that he was ‘was struck by… the really incredibly sloppy science that was given to the jury.’
‘I think a just ending to Joe’s story is to tell the story of who killed… his beloved wife Mickey, the woman he loved, that would be a great ending,’ the author added.