Sunday, September 12, 2010

The passing of a hero

About 30 years ago in Conroe a manager for the Bellville High School volleyball team was raped and killed in a bathroom at Conroe High School during a pre-season volleyball tournament. Police arrested Clarence Brandley, a black janitor, for the crime. I grew up in Conroe and while I don't remember all of the details (I was getting ready to start my 8th grade year at Travis Jr. High), I do remember the mood.

It was the classic southern crime story -- a black male accused of raping and killing a white girl. Mr. Brandley was portrayed as a monster and a predator while the victim, Cheryl Ferguson, was beatified. While there was some physical evidence, little of it was ever tested and, later, what there was turned up missing. I remember writing a letter to the editor of the Conroe paper stating that there was no evidence the linked Mr. Brandley to the crime and that he should be freed -- my mother was worried that someone might retaliate against me because of what I had written.

After a mistrial, a Montgomery County jury convicted Mr. Brandley of murder and sentenced him to die in 1981. Thus began years of furious appeals and writs before Mr. Brandley was exonerated in 1990. The only evidence linking Mr. Brandley to the murder was the testimony of two other janitors (who later recanted their testimony).

I bring this up because last week Don Brown, a longtime Conroe defense attorney died. I didn't realize until I read his obituary that he was the man who defended Mr. Brandley at trial. While he might have lost that trial, in the end, he, and his client, got the victory they deserved.

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