Guilty Until Proven Innocent

There were no witnesses to the murder. The evidence was circumstantial. The accused was black. The victim was white. The case was rife with racism. Now Clarence Brandley is on death row . . .

In a musty Conroe law office one warm afternoon last April, a frail retired auto mechanic sat in front of a whirring video camera. As an air conditioner rumbled in the background, sixty-year-old Edward Glenn Payne, Sr., lifted to his throat a small cylindrical device called an artificial electrolarynx. The machine compensates for the larynx Payne lost to cancer. In words so eerily mechanical that they could have been generated by a computer with an East Texas twang, Payne told of a conversation he had with his son-in-law one weekend seven years ago after a sixteen-year-old girl had been murdered at Conroe High School.

The facts Payne related were pieces of a puzzle, crucial pieces that might exonerate a black man convicted of the white girl’s murder. Payne didn’t even know the man. And what he had to say could make life difficult for his son-in-law, who had been a central witness for the prosecution. Ten days earlier Payne had even been beaten by two men, one of whom had warned him to “keep your goddam mouth shut.” Why was he speaking out?

Well, I want to do what’s right to the best of my ability, because I’m not going to be here long,” Payne rasped. “My life is coming to an end. And I’d like to give a man back his life that’s way younger than I am.”

In early June Payne’s son-in-law, Gary Michael Acreman, completed a short jail term on unrelated charges and returned to Payne’s daughter Cynthia and their two children. The couple lives next door to Payne in a trailer home in an isolated area near Grangerland, about ten miles outside Conroe. Acreman, a sandy-haired, slender 28-year-old, had made his own videotaped statements in mid-March clearing the convicted man — but later retracted them.

Around the time Acreman moved back next door to Payne, the black man’s attorneys made public Payne’s statement. Payne promptly told reporters he was taking it all back. I visited him one late June afternoon when Acreman wasn’t home. Reluctantly, Payne got up from a nap and agreed to talk to me. He looked haggard and feeble. His wife was angry. The lawyers had fed him what to say, he told me. Everything had happened seven years ago. He didn’t remember anything. His eyes seemed fixed and hard.

Then he looked at me a little apologetically. “They said it was only being done to help the Negro,” he said. “But all the time they were trying to put someone else’s neck in the noose.” He glanced over at his two grandchildren, ages five and seven. They were napping under a tattered blanket on a couch in the sparsely furnished living room of his trailer. “I don’t like the man, but he is their daddy, and he’s all they’ve got when I’m gone.”

Behind the totally circumstantial case styled State of Texas v. Clarence Lee Brandley is a troubling story with dark undercurrents of race, class, and power in a small East Texas town — a place more Southern than Texan, where Byzantine political corruption seems endemic. Despite serious questions about Brandley’s guilt, the Montgomery County district attorney has continued to press for his quick execution. Within Conroe an

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