Joe Bryan, a former Texas high school principal, is serving a 99-year prison term for the murder of his wife, which he probably didn’t commit. The case illustrates the issues surrounding dubious experts in bloodstain-pattern analysis.
Joe Bryan, a former high school principal from central Texas, is serving a 99-year prison term for the murder of his wife, Mickey, in 1985, a crime he probably didn’t commit, the New York Times argues in an editorial calling for his release. Bryan is behind bars because of tiny specks of what may or may not have been blood on a flashlight that may or may not have been planted in the trunk of his car. The evidence was introduced at trial through the testimony of a questionable expert witness. As a two-part series published by the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica lays out, there was no other physical evidence or motive tying Bryan to the crime. He was convicted on the word of detective Robert Thorman, who testified as an expert in bloodstain-pattern analysis. Thorman was certified after taking a weeklong course that now costs as little as a few hundred dollars.
A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that “the opinions of bloodstain-pattern analysts are more subjective than scientific,” and, “The uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous.” It’s a good bet that there are other Joe Bryans in prisons because of highly unreliable forensic testimony, the Times says. The NAS report found significant problems with other kinds of forensic evidence, including bite marks, tire treads, arson and hair samples. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long sided with prosecutors and rejected efforts to look more critically at forensic sciences, let a national commission on the subject expire last year. This year, the Texas Forensic Science Commission imposed on Texas a requirement that bloodstain-pattern analysis be performed by an accredited organization, which should make it harder for prosecutors to introduce testimony by analysts with minimal training and qualifications.