Clarence Brandley was working as a high school custodian in Conroe, Texas, in 1980, when police arrested him for the murder of Cheryl Fergeson, a 16-year-old white student. When his white co-workers voiced suspicion of Clarence, the only black man on the staff, he was quickly arrested and charged.
While the police interviewed Brandley and one of his white co-workers, a Texas Ranger proclaimed that, “One of you two is going to hang for this,” and told Clarence, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.” In his first trial he faced an all-white jury. One juror refused to convict, causing a hung jury, and was met with a constant barrage of harassment and threats after the trial ended. Clarence’s second all-white jury convicted him, and in 1981 he was sentenced to death.
A year later it was revealed that the majority of the murder investigation’s physical evidence had mysteriously disappeared while under police control. In 1986, a new witness stepped forward claiming to know the real murderer. Yet Clarence’s defense was repeatedly denied a new trial. Mere weeks before Clarence’s scheduled execution in March 1987, private investigator James McCloskey joined his legal team and contributed to the first major break in the case. The original testimony of the other custodians was recanted after it was revealed that investigators had coerced their stories. Furthermore, when the blatant racism of the first two trials was discovered, the FBI decided to intervene, and Clarence was granted a new trial and exonerated. Amazingly, it took three more years for Clarence to be was released from Texas’ death row.
If the state of Texas had its way, Clarence Brandley would have died more than 30 years ago.
Instead, the modest man from Montgomery County walked out of the Walls Unit in 1990 and started a second life after becoming, at that time, only the third person released from Texas death row. He settled down in the country; he founded a church; he held odd jobs; and he grew older.
Clarence Brandley, who escaped death in the Texas execution chamber, died from pneumonia on September 2, 2018, in his home near Conroe. He was 66. Brandley was one of the first men to be released alive from Texas’s death row, back in 1990. Exonerations of the wrongly convicted occur regularly now, but 1990 was a very different time. “This was a rare event,” says Jim McCloskey, who was instrumental in Brandley’s release. “An innocent man on death row was a huge story.”
In a town plagued by a racist history – Conroe was the infamous site of the lynching of Joe Winters in front of the courthouse in 1922 – Brandley’s case added to the growing national awareness about the possibility of wrongful convictions driven by racial prejudice, bad lawyering and shoddy evidence.
- The infamous Brandley case epitomized the wrongheadness of the Ranger Way. On August 28, 1980, Texas Ranger Wesley Styles was called in to investigate the sexual assault and strangulation of a Conroe High School cheerleader. The following day, before interviewing a single witness, Styles arrested high school custodian Clarence Brandley and charged him with capital murder. A Montgomery County jury sentenced Brandley to death. Today a number of Rangers contend that Styles had collared the right culprit. After all, Bradley had recently had been arrested for an attempted rape and abduction, was on felony probation for a weapons charge, was spotted near the scene of the crime, had no solid alibi, and had failed a polygraph in connection with the offense.
- The Rangers believed they had gotten their man. But he ultimately slipped through their fingers, due entirely to the Rangers’ outmoded methods. In 1989 the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that Styles had conducted his investigation with a “blind focus” on Brandley, ignoring crucial evidence that incriminated other potential suspects. Styles had led other janitors on a “walk through” of the crime scene that “contributed a due process violation by creating false testimony.” He had roughed up and threatened to kill the state’s star witness. He had suppressed crucial tape recordings of witness interviews. Finally, presiding judge Perry Pickett determined that Ranger Styles had lied on the witness stand. The court was thereby left with no choice but to reverse the conviction in 1989 and set Brandley free after seven years on death row.
“There were a lot of things wrong with his case but it seemed like race was front and center,” said Richard Dieter, former director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “There was this black janitor and a murdered high school girl and it eventually dawned on people that he was innocent and he’d been railroaded and framed.”
Perhaps the most damning testimony against Brandley came from Ickie Peace. He said that Brandley sent him to search the prop loft three times. In the first trial Brandley strongly denied that he had send Peace there more than once; in fact, he said, they had gone up more or less together. The defense did its best to combat Peace’s testimony by suggesting that Peace himself might be the murderer. Despite admitting that he sometimes retreated to an intricate fantasy world, the little man was not a plausible rapist. Moreover, he had an alibi — the three other white janitors — just as each of them had alibis from each other.
The defense asked Peace if he had been threatened by the Conroe police or Ranger Styles. He insisted that he hadn’t, thus depriving Brandley’s lawyers of the most straightforward rebuttal of his testimony: Frightened into thinking he would be held responsible for the crime, Peace had fabricated evidence against Brandley.
In an early 1981 interview with writer Ryan Bernard after the first trial, however, Peace admitted that he had perjured himself about the intimidation. He said the police wouldn’t let him call his sister or a lawyer when he asked to do so. “You’re a suspect in a murder case, and you’re going to tell us what we want to know,” Peace said he was told. Later, Peace said, he was pressed to sign a statement, even though he cannot read or write. “They told me to sign the papers,” he said. “I asked what they were. They said, ‘Never mind what the hell they are — sign them if you want to go home.’”
The first trial ended in a mistrial, but the following year an all-white jury convicted Brandley and sent him to death row. In the years that followed, the case drew the attention of civil rights activists, who held rallies, raised legal funds and started the Free Clarence Brandley Coalition.
Dist. Atty. Jim Keeshan who went on the be a District Judge lied to Brandley’s defense attorney to get Brandley before the Grand Jury, then lied to the Grand Jury to get a murder indictment. He lied to keep Brandley from ever getting bail. He lied to prevent the defense from ever getting access–as required by law–to any of the state’s evidence.
The medical evidence that would have cleared Brandley was “lost.” The original exhibits in Brandley’s two trials were “stolen.” The medical examiner “forgot” the results of the dead girl’s autopsy, “mislaid” his notes and “threw out” the samples he had taken from her body.
Texas Ranger John Wesley Styles terrorized witnesses whose testimony would have supported Brandley’s innocence, then coached the rest in outright lies for perjured testimony. He feloniously reversed the polygraph test supporting Brandley’s innocence.
The sheriff, Gene Reaves, defied a court order to release Brandley on bail. “That little nigger,” he said, “don’t belong on the ground.” Faced with the sheriff’s intransigence, Judge Lee Alworth promptly reversed himself and denied bail.
The defense recused Alworth– a legal challenge that forces a judge to resign or face charges before the District Court–and also the next two judges to sit in judgment on Brandley.
One of them, Judge John Martin, actually met DA Keeshan secretly in chambers each morning to fix what his rulings would be that day in court. Even after recusal, Martin briefly reassigned himself to the case following Brandley’s death sentence so that he could set the date of execution on the natal day of Peggy Stevens, district clerk at the Conroe courthouse. Stevens wanted “the nigger’s” death as a birthday present.
All of these people knew, absolutely, from the evidence they themselves had suppressed, that Brandley was innocent.
Still, he might have been put to death, but for the dogged work of defense attorneys – namely Mike DeGeurin and Paul Nugent – who kept the case in the courts up until the last minute. At one point, Brandley was just days from an execution when he won a stay.
“I just wanted to be a member of the finest law enforcement agency in the world,” said Wesley Styles,. “I thought the Rangers were at the top of the ladder.”
“No case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation (and) an investigation the outcome of which was predetermined,” State District Judge Perry Pickett wrote after a 1987 evidentiary hearing.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that his trial lacked even “the rudiments of fairness” and sent the case back for a new trial. But, by that point, key evidence had vanished and there wasn’t enough to retry it.
The whole ordeal inspired a book – “White Lies” by British author Nick Davies – and later a Showtime movie. The media buzz helped shine a light on the fears of wrongful convictions.
“He was one of the early exonerations,” said Robert Dunham, the Death Penalty Information Center’s current director, “and it was at a time at which it was beginning to be clear that there was a significant risk that innocent people would be sent to death row if you had a death penalty.”
Through it all – despite his claims of innocence – Brandley couldn’t get authorities to clear him, so he was never able to get payment from the state’s compensation fund.
“He couldn’t quite understand why former Governor Rick Perry would do him like that,” his brother said.
Years later, as he worked to pay off child support accrued during his time in prison, the police department’s failure to arrest the right man still stung.
“All I know is that I’m the first person in the state of Texas to have been indicted for capital murder and go to trial within 90 days,” Brandley said. “I participated in the investigation, gave my hair, saliva, my blood. And the medical examiner said that because no one asked him to preserve that, he threw it away. Threw it away.”
The case was closed, and in 2014 prosecutors and police said they had no intention of reopening it.
Then, in January 2018, former Conroe Police Chief Charlie Ray died. And, when his relatives started going through his belongings, they found a box of trial exhibits in his garage.
Between that find and other requests for a renewed investigation, Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon decided to call in the Texas Rangers and local police.
“We’ve asked Conroe Police Department to look through all the evidence that’s left to see if there’s anything that can be harvested, if there’s anything that can be retested,” Ligon said. “It’s still an open case as far as the law is concerned.”
Now, Brandley’s life is a closed book. To DeGeurin, it’s a personal loss.
“I spent a good deal of my life getting him off of death row,” he said. “He was always a good person, (who) never bothered his lawyers.”