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Adam Braseel

Other Tennessee Exonerations
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On the evening of January 7, 2006, a man came to the door of Malcolm Burrows’s house on the outskirts of Tracy City, Tennessee, and said he was having car trouble.

Burrows, who was 60 years old, agreed to help, and the two left in a Chrysler Fifth Avenue owned by Burrows’s sister, 54-year-old Rebecca Hill, who lived at the house with her son, 33-year-old Kirk Braden.

About 20 minutes later, the man returned by himself and said he needed some starter fluid. Hill would later testify that as she reached under the kitchen sink to look for the fluid, the man hit her on the head with a tire iron, a bat, or some other tool.

Braden heard his mother scream and rushed to the kitchen, where he found the man standing over Hill. Braden said he pulled the man off Hill and then the man threw a fire extinguisher that hit Braden’s shoulder. Braden said the man ran out the door. He gave his mom some ice and then ran after the man. He said he saw him drive off in a car, which he initially described as having a sunroof and front-end damage.

Braden went to a neighbor’s house and called 911. Sergeant Michael Brown with the Grundy County Sheriff’s Department was among the first responders and spoke with Hill and Braden. Braden described the man as having red hair and wearing a ball cap. Hill soon lost consciousness, and an ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital. Brown then located Hill’s car and found Burrows’s body nearby. An autopsy later said that Burrows was beaten to death with enough force to split his skull in two.

Agent Larry Davis with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation arrived at the crime scene early on January 8, 2006 to help the sheriff’s department with the investigation.

Angela White, a neighbor, told investigators that on January 6, 2006, she had seen an unfamiliar vehicle parked near Burrows’s house. She didn’t know the make or model, but described it as a “gold, shiny, new model car.”

Tracy City is in Grundy County, which is about an hour away from Chattanooga and sparsely populated, with about 14,000 residents. Brown didn’t recall a lot of redheads, and he would later tell the podcast Criminal that he began working his sources about possible suspects. “Most of them didn’t know anyone with red hair,” he said. “So, I come across this one person and they advised me that they used to sing with them in the choir down in Pelham.”

That person was 22-year-old Adam Braseel. He had grown up in Grundy County and had moved with his mother to a neighboring county after high school. He was married and delivered packages for UPS. Deputies went to talk with his mother. She said her son wasn’t home, but they later found Braseel at a house in Coalmont, another small community in Grundy County, about 20 minutes from where Burrows was killed. His mother’s car, a gold Acura, was in the driveway. It was 12 years old, with front-end damage.

Braseel consented to a search of the car. He gave the deputies the ball cap and the clothes he wore the night before. Braseel’s only injury was a bruise and small cut on his face; he said a box had fallen on him.

In a statement, Braseel said he left work on Friday, January 6, borrowed his mother’s car, and then drove to meet a friend, Charles Partin, in Coalmont. Braseel said that the next day, he had driven around in the early evening, returning to Partin’s house around 9, and then heading over to Josh Seagroves’s house around 10. He and Seagroves spent the night four-wheeling in the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau.

Prior to any identification by Braden or Hill, investigators were already sure they had the right person. Braseel’s car was sent to the TBI crime lab for examination. A note from Davis accompanying the vehicle said: “The above subject (Adam Braseel) beat Burrows to death, robbed him, went to victim’s house, beat his sister Becky Hill severely until stopped by victim Hill’s son.”

About four or five days after the attacks, Braden went to the office of Sheriff Brent Myers to look at photos. Myers would later testify that Braden entered his office as he was in the process of cutting out photos to make an array. The photos were placed in a stack, with Braseel’s photo on top by itself. Braden identified Braseel as the man who attacked him and his mother.

Due to her head injuries, Hill was in the hospital for several days. After she regained consciousness, Hill identified Braseel as her attacker from a separate photo array of eight men. Only two of the men in the array remotely resembled the description provided by Hill and Braden.

Braseel was arrested on January 18, 2006, and later indicted for first degree murder, felony murder, especially aggravated robbery, attempt to commit first degree murder, aggravated assault, especially aggravated burglary, and assault. The burglary charge was eventually dismissed.

Braseel’s trial began on November 7, 2009, in Grundy County Circuit Court in Altamont. Prosecutors presented the case as a violent attack following a robbery.

The medical examiner, Dr. Feng Li, testified that Burrows died of blunt force trauma, but for reasons that are not clear in court records he did not give an estimated time of death. Asked whether Burrows could have been in the woods for a week or more, Li said, “It is very hard to say how long or how far away this patient died.” As a later filing on behalf of Braseel would note, “The only evidence that established the timeline of Malcolm Burrows’ death was the testimony of Becky Hill and Kirk Braden.”

Hill identified Braseel as the attacker and told the jury, “He is right there.” But she also testified that her injuries had left her memory unreliable and that “it was all a dream.” She had testified at a preliminary hearing that her initial identification of Braseel took place at her sister’s house. But at trial, she said the identification took place at the jail. The timeline was uncertain to her because she had been “heavily medicated.”

During Hill’s testimony, she said that her son knew Braseel prior to January 7, 2006. There had been some sort of altercation between Braseel and a friend of Braden’s in 2005, and Braden and Hill had talked about the incident at the time it happened.

Braden also identified Braseel and said the bruise on Braseel’s cheek that investigators first noticed was from a blow Braden landed while they fought. He also said that Braseel drove away.

But a neighbor named Jeffrey White, Angela White’s husband, testified that Braden had told him the attacker ran away; he said he remembered this account because it frightened him that a dangerous man could be running loose in the neighborhood.

Braden had also told investigators that he didn’t know the attacker, but Hill’s testimony about the 2005 event appeared to contradict that statement. When prosecutors asked Braden about the discrepancy, he said he had forgotten about the 2005 event.

At a preliminary hearing, Agent Davis had testified that Sheriff Myers was with him at the crime scene in the early morning of January 8, but he didn’t mention that in his testimony at trial. Davis also testified that no wallet was found on Burrows. Hill had testified that Burrows was carrying about $800 at the time of his death.

Myers testified about the investigation, but he said that he was not at the crime scene that night. He said he was in Chattanooga at the hospital with his son, and that he saw Hill when she arrived by helicopter for treatment for her head injuries.

Angela White, the neighbor, testified that the gold Acura Braseel borrowed from his mother “looked like the car” she had seen near the Burrows house, but she also said the car she saw didn’t have a dent in it.

A search of Braseel’s car by TBI agents did not turn up any evidence connecting Braseel with the murder and attacks. Agent Margaret Bash testified that the TBI did not find any blood on Braseel’s clothes or from items in the car, including a tire iron. She also said there was no indication any of the items had been recently cleaned. In addition, Agent Elizabeth Reed with the TBI said that Braseel was not the source of any fingerprints found at the crime scene, including prints pulled from the Chrysler.

Braseel testified and said he did not kill Burrows or attack his family members. He recounted his trip back home, visiting with friends and getting up into the mountains. Several friends testified about his whereabouts on January 7, although their testimony did not account for the entire evening.

On November 9, 2007, the jury convicted Braseel of first-degree murder, felony murder, especially aggravated robbery, attempt to commit first degree murder, aggravated assault, and assault. The murder convictions were merged, and Braseel was later sentenced to life in prison.

Braseel’s initial appeal to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals was denied on February 7, 2011. He then filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Grundy County Circuit Court, and an evidentiary hearing was held before Judge Justin Angel.

Braseel’s attorneys argued that his trial attorneys had been deficient because they failed to adequately challenge or move to suppress the eyewitness identifications of Braden and Hill, including the manner in which Braden initially identified Braseel from the stack of photos on the sheriff’s desk. They also said that the attorneys had failed to ask the trial judge to give the jury proper instructions on how to consider eyewitness identification.

At the evidentiary hearing, several new witnesses who didn’t testify at trial filled in the gaps in Braseel’s timeline on January 7. Separately, a witness said he told a Grundy County sheriff’s deputy in March 2007 that he heard a man named Eck Frederick might have killed Burrows.

On January 4, 2016, Judge Angel vacated Braseel’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The ruling said that single-photo eyewitness identifications had been ruled unconstitutional in Tennessee, and Braseel’s attorneys should have either moved to suppress the identification or objected during the trial. Judge Angel noted that the state’s case relied almost exclusively on the eyewitness identifications.

“If any other evidence whatsoever existed, then the flaws with the identification of the Petitioner would not be as important and fundamental to ensuring that the Petitioner receive a constitutionally fair trial,” Judge Angel wrote.

Braseel was released from prison on January 8, 2016. The state appealed. On October 7, 2016, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Judge Angel’s ruling and reinstated Braseel’s conviction. The court said that Braden hadn’t actually selected Braseel from a single photo; his was just the first photo in a stack. That was permissible, the appellate court said, which voided the claim that Braseel’s attorneys were deficient in failing to suppress or object to Braden’s identification.

The appellate court also said that the trial judge’s charging instructions to the jury about eyewitness identifications were deficient but harmless.

Braseel returned to prison on October 11, 2016.

On May 23, 2017, Braseel filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. The petition repeated many of the claims made in Braseel’s petition for post-conviction relief, but it also said that there was new evidence of innocence, including a list of other suspects with motive to kill Burrows, and that misconduct by Sheriff Myers and others had led to Braseel’s wrongful conviction.

Braseel’s new attorney, Alex Little, had obtained an affidavit from former Deputy Brown, who had moved to Florida. Brown said that Burrows had a wallet in his back pocket when he found the body. That contradicted the testimony of Davis about the absence of a wallet and poked a hole in the state’s theory that Burrows was killed in a robbery. Brown also said that Myers was at the crime scene that night, and Brown showed Myers and Davis the body. This contradicted Myers’s testimony. Brown had originally told his account to David Sale, an investigative reporter and filmmaker who closely followed the Braseel case and uncovered significant problems in the state’s evidence.

Brown had left the sheriff’s department prior to Braseel’s trial, but he said in his affidavit that he had contacted the district attorney’s office and said he could come testify. He was told he wasn’t needed.

Separately, the petition said that Myers had altered a witness statement by a man named Jay Douglas, who had told Myers that on January 6, he saw Burrows talking to a tall, white man with dark hair over his ears. The man was with a blonde woman, and they were driving a tan or gold car. But in his report, Myers changed the description, writing “[Douglas] told me that the subject in the car was a white male between twenty-five and thirty years old with red hair.”

These issues were also raised in a state petition for a writ of error coram nobis that Braseel filed in state court, also on May 23, 2017.

In 2017, the TBI completed an upgrade to the software that ran its fingerprint identification system. Supervisors tested the system by running unmatched prints from old cases. One of the prints was from Hill’s Chrysler. On June 29, 2017, the TBI reported that the print’s source was a man named Kermit Bryson, who had a lengthy criminal history and shot himself to death in June 2008 after killing a deputy in Grundy County who was trying to serve him with an arrest warrant.

More than a year later, on October 3, 2018, Steven Strain, an assistant district attorney for Tennessee’s 12th Judicial District, wrote to Little and informed him of the findings. Strain had been the lead prosecutor at Braseel’s trial.

Strain said the delay in relaying this information to Little was based on the need to do follow up. “I felt it was important to complete the investigation so it would not be tainted by the bizarre theories on social media.” He said the fingerprint didn’t exonerate Braseel. “While we have long suspected Mr. Braseel had assistance in committing the murder, Mr. Bryson’s name has never been mentioned,” he wrote. The only connection between Bryson and Burrows, Strain said, was that Bryson’s girlfriend at the time was raising a child whom Burrows considered to be his grandchild.

Bryson’s fingerprints were on file at the time of the Burrows murder. It’s not clear why they didn’t show up in a search, but the TBI said that the systems upgrade in early 2017 allowed more exhaustive searches of the digitized fingerprint cards.

In 2019, Little amended the petition for a writ of error coram nobis. The new filing noted that Bryson and Braseel looked very similar, each with fair skin and red hair. In addition, the car that Bryson most frequently drove was a gold Ford Escort that resembled the old Acura owned by Braseel’s mother.

The motion also noted Bryson’s long history of violence prior to January 2006, which would have rendered him a prime suspect if his fingerprint had been identified at the time of the investigation into Burrows’s death.

The state opposed the new petition. First, it said there was no way to know when Bryson touched Burrows’s car. Second, Bryson’s conduct in the years after the Burrows murder wasn’t admissible because there were no similarities between his actions of shooting the deputy and the manner in which Burrows died. The state also said it believed that the Ford Escort wasn’t working at the time of the Burrows murder. Finally, the state said, the eyewitness identifications were strong. Braden had not only picked Braseel from the photos, but he had also identified Braseel’s ball cap as being the one worn by the attacker.

The first evidentiary hearing on the motion was on June 26, 2019. By then, Little and his team had collected additional evidence that pointed toward Bryson as the real killer. At the hearing, a woman named Elizabeth Rector testified that Bryson had told her that he killed Burrows. A man named Cody Crisp testified that Bryson was driving the gold Escort around the time of the murder.

Prosecutors pushed back. They said that Rector had only come forward after it was publicly known that Bryson’s fingerprint was found on the Chrysler.

At the second day of the evidentiary hearing, on August 2, 2019, Rector’s testimony was bolstered by the testimony of a man who had run the reentry program at the Grundy County jail. He said that Rector had told him much of this information in May 2018. Separately, Dr. Jeffrey Neuschatz, an expert on eyewitness identification, testified that a combination of factors — including stress and limited exposure to the suspect — made it more likely that Braden and Hill misidentified the man who attacked them.

Prior to the second day of the hearing, prosecutors had offered Braseel two deals. He rejected an offer to plead to second-degree murder and be released after serving an additional five years. Prosecutors then sweetened the offer to manslaughter. He also turned that down.

After a state’s witness testified that fingerprints were fragile, undermining the theory that Bryson’s print on the Chrysler could have been from an earlier encounter with Hill, prosecutors made a third offer, which Braseel accepted.

He entered an Alford plea to aggravated assault on Hill., allowing his immediate release from prison. Under an Alford plea, defendants don’t admit guilt but acknowledge that the state has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. The other charges were dismissed, and he was released from prison that day.

“I think this is a case of imperfect justice,” said Little. “He doesn't admit guilt because he's not guilty. This way he can go home tonight.”

On June 24, 2020, the Tennessee Board of Parole met and voted unanimously to recommend that Gov. Bill Lee pardon Braseel.

His supporters at the hearing included Judge Angel and Sheriff Clint Shrum, who replaced Myers in 2014. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but what I do think is this was some of the worst police work that I have ever seen in my life,” Shrum said. In an affidavit that accompanied one of Braseel’s petitions, Shrum had said that the department’s case file on the murder was missing when he took office.

Lee issued a pardon of exoneration to Braseel on December 2, 2021.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/13/2021
Last Updated: 12/13/2021
State:Tennessee
County:Grundy
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Robbery, Assault
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No