On August 23, 1980, two custodians – Clarence Brandley and Henry Peace – found the body of 16-year-old Cheryl Dee Ferguson in a loft above the auditorium of Conroe High School in Conroe, Texas. She had been raped and strangled. In a case of egregious police and prosecutorial misconduct and unvarnished racism, one of these custodians, Clarence Brandley, was framed for the crime.
Texas Ranger Wesley Styles led the police investigation. Soon after the body had been found, he conducted a joint investigation of Brandley and Peace, during which he said, “One of you is going to have to hang for this” and, turning to Brandley, added, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.”
Brandley was one of five school custodians, and the only African-American. In interviews with police, the other four all made statements implicating Brandley in the murder. Two claimed they saw him follow Ferguson up the stairs to the loft and did not see him again until the search for her had begun. There was no physical evidence linking Brandley to the crime, and semen recovered from Ferguson was inexplicably destroyed.
Brandley went on trial in December 1980 before an all-white jury. One juror found the evidence insufficient to establish guilt, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial.
Brandley’s second trial was held in February 1981 before another all-white jury. One of the original witnesses – custodian John Sessum – was not called because he was no longer willing to support the other custodians’ version of events. In closing arguments, the district attorney mentioned that Brandley had a second job at a funeral home and suggested that he was a necrophiliac and had raped Ferguson after she was dead. The defense objected to this as inflammatory, but was overruled. Brandley was convicted and sentenced to death.
Eleven months after the conviction, appellate lawyers discovered that in addition to the semen, other exculpatory evidence had disappeared from the custody of the prosecution – including a Caucasian pubic hair and other hairs that matched neither the victim nor Brandley, and photographs taken on the day of the crime showing that Brandley was not wearing the belt that the prosecution claimed had been the murder weapon. Brandley’s appeal emphasized the willful destruction and disappearance of this potentially exculpatory evidence, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and death sentence without mentioning the issue.
Then a woman named Brenda Medina saw a television broadcast about the Brandley case, and contacted the district attorney to tell him that her former live-in boyfriend – Dexter Robinson – had told her in 1980 that he had committed such a crime. The district attorney later claimed he found Medina to be unreliable, and therefore, he had no obligation to inform Brandley’s lawyers. However, a private attorney Medina also consulted put her in contact with the defense, who obtained Medina’s sworn statement and petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a writ of habeas corpus. The court ordered an evidentiary hearing. In addition to Medina, John Sessum took the stand, now claiming he had seen another custodian, Gary Acreman, follow Cheryl Ferguson up a staircase leading to the auditorium, and then heard her screaming. Acreman warned Sessum not to tell anyone what he had seen, but Sessum did tell someone – Ranger Styles. Styles responded by threatening him with arrest if he told a story inconsistent with Acreman’s. Despite this new evidence, Brandley was denied a new trial.
By now, the Centurion Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey, had taken on the case. Working with a private investigator, advocates for Brandley obtained a video-taped statement from Acreman stating that Robinson had killed Ferguson. Acreman soon recanted that video statement, but two new witnesses came forward and swore that they had heard Acreman say he knew who killed Ferguson, and that it was not Brandley. Based on these statements, six days before his execution date, Brandley was granted a stay.
After further investigation, Brandley’s lawyers petitioned for another evidentiary hearing, which the Court of Criminal Appeals granted in June 1987. Robinson, Acreman, and Styles testified for the prosecution, and helped, rather than hurt Brandley’s case. Robinson admitted he had told Brenda Medina in 1980 that he had killed Ferguson, but claimed he had said that only to frighten her. Acreman made a stunning admission that Robinson had been at the victim’s high school on the morning of the murder. (Ferguson did not attend Conroe High, but was there for a volleyball game.) Ranger Styles, while denying he had done anything improper, acknowledged that even before he had interviewed any witnesses, Brandley was his only suspect, and was unable to explain why he had not obtained a hair sample from Acreman to compare with the Caucasian pubic hair and other hairs found on the victim.
On October 9, 1987, the judge recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals grant Brandley a new trial. The Court accepted this recommendation in a sharply split en banc decision on December 13, 1989. The prosecution appealed, delaying disposition of the case another ten months, but dropped all charges on October 1, 1990, within hours after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, and Brandley was released. A few months later, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. He filed lawsuits against several agencies of the State of Texas, but received no relief.
– Alexandra Gross