Texas Commission Findings Could Spur Forensic Science Reform

August 07, 2018 by

Joe Bryan, a former High School principal has spent 30 years in prison after being convicted of murdering his schoolteacher wife in 1985. He recently lost his fourth bid for parole, but new findings from the Texas Forensic Science Commission regarding the use of blood-spatter analysis in his original trial may make it harder for the state to deny Bryan a new trial.

Two lawyers, Walter Reaves and Jessi Freud, are working to prove Bryan’s innocence as they feel he was wrongly convicted. Bryan was sentenced to 99 years, has served 33, and has always maintained his innocence. Now, the Texas Forensic Science Commission may breathe new life into his case.

The Commission was created by the legislature in 2005 to investigate the integrity of the forensic science used in convictions. The group has come to be a national leader in forensic science reform and recently analyzed some of the expert testimony used to convict Bryan.

At the time of the murder, Bryan was checked in at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin attending a school administrators conference, 120 miles away from where the murder happened in Clifton, Texas.

The prosecution’s case hinged on blood-spatter evidence and testimony by a detective.

Bloodstain-pattern analysis, or blood-spatter analysis, is a tool investigators use to analyze and draw conclusions of a crime. Where and how the blood lands, its consistency, and the size and shape of the matter is analyzed often helping investigators to reverse-engineer the crime.

Robert Thorman, a Harker Heights detective, was instrumental in Bryan’s case. He received 40 hours of bloodstain-pattern analysis training and his testimony regarding a bloody flashlight found in Bryan’s trunk four days after the murder was a major part of the case. Like Thorman, many blood-spatter practitioners have no more than a week or 40 hours of training in the field.

Thorman testified that the blood on the flashlight found in Bryan’s trunk was back spatter, indicating that it was in the murderer’s hand as they shot Bryan’s wife. However, thirty years later, Celestina Rossi, a blood-spatter expert employed by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office crime lab, said, “Thorman’s testimony was egregiously wrong,” continuing, “If any juror relied on any part of his testimony to render a verdict, Mr. Bryan deserves a new trial.”

According to ProPublica, Rossi also found that, “the detective misstated scientific concepts, used flawed methodology and incorrectly interpreted evidence. Both his analysis and his expert testimony were not scientifically accurate, she told the commission, and could not be supported by published research or data.” Rossi determined that the blood on the flashlight did not “radiate back in a radiating pattern” as would be expected if the prosecution’s scenario were fact.

The Bosque County district attorney’s office has been blocking Bryan’s efforts to have analysis performed on previously untested evidence, but that could end.

The commission will release its final report in October and the General Counsel said they may suggest DNA testing, which would require the Bosque County DA’s office to drop an appeal to a 2017 court ruling that ordering testing.

On August 20, a three-day evidentiary hearing will begin in Comanche County to determine whether or not the presiding judge will recommend to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Bryan deserves a new trial.

Reports show that before the evidentiary hearing even begins, positive outcomes have resulted from revisiting the case. The commission moved in February to prohibit law enforcement officers with minimal training in this specific analysis to testify as expert witnesses.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.