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 unseemly alliance appears to have evolved, an implicit pact that blends the self-interest of potential murder suspects with authorities’ zeal to maintain a conviction and save face.

Clarence Brandley, a 35-year-old onetime high school janitorial supervisor now on death row, was charged with capital murder seven years ago. Brandley was arrested just six days after he led police to the body of a sixteen-year-old white girl — nude except for her sweat socks — that a white janitor searching with him had found in a prop loft above the Conroe High auditorium. An autopsy determined that Cheryl Dee Fergeson, the manager of the Bellville High girls’ volleyball team visiting Conroe High for a preseason scrimmage, had been raped and strangled. Sometime after 9:10 a.m. on Saturday, August 23, 1980, she had wandered down an empty hallway toward a girls’ rest room in a deserted section of the school. No one admitted seeing her after she left the gym except three white janitors, who were taking a break while waiting for their next work assignment.

The grisly crime occurred ten days before the start of the school year and caused near hysteria in Conroe, a county seat planted in the Piney Woods between Houston and Huntsville. Dozens of anxious parents in the town of 18,000 phoned authorities and threatened to keep their daughters out of the high school until the killer was apprehended. The police initially seized on those who had discovered the body as prime suspects. On the day of the crime, according to Henry M. “Ickie” Peace, the white janitor who first sighted the body shortly before noon, an officer interviewing him and Brandley told him, “One of you two is going to hang for this.” Indicating Brandley, Peace said, the policeman continued, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.”

But Brandley, a man of medium height and build with a quick, slurred way of talking, got a brief reprieve. The Monday following the murder, Brandley and Peace were taken to the Houston police headquarters for polygraph tests. Both passed and were returned to their jobs at the high school. The authorities, lacking any hard evidence identifying the murderer, seemed stymied. At that point, then Montgomery County district attorney Jim Keeshan, an affable, ambitious prosecutor, had a vacationing Texas Ranger named Wesley Styles tracked down, and Styles took charge of the case. The Ranger hit town on Thursday night and spent most of Friday, August 29, closeted with Keeshan and various police officers at the courthouse, a stolid thirties blockhouse on Conroe’s central square. A Houston police supervisor reviewed the examiner’s polygraph of Brandley and concluded that Brandley had not passed the test after all. At about four o’clock that afternoon, Styles and a retinue of officers went to the Conroe High principal’s office. Brandley was called to the office and

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