Mickey Bryan's 1985 murder rocked the small town of Clifton, Texas. She was a beloved elementary school teacher married to the equally beloved principal of the town's high school. And their love for each other was well known: The two were seen nearly nightly, "strolling hand in hand down the town's wide residential streets, absorbed in conversation," reports Pamela Colloff in the first of a two-part investigation for ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine. On the Oct. 15 morning that the 44-year-old didn't show up to teach, Joe was 120 miles away at a conference; he had called her from the hotel at 9pm the night prior. After being told Mickey had been found shot dead, he cried during the full two-hour drive home. The crime was a bloody one, with blood splattered on all four walls of the bedroom she was found in. The blood would come to matter.
After arriving in town after his sister's murder, Charlie Blue borrowed Joe's car. When he opened the trunk to find something to clean off a pair of muddy shoes, he said he found a flashlight whose lens appeared to be flecked with blood. A lab showed it to be type O—Mickey's type—and a chemist thought a small plastic particle on the lens was similar to the birdshot shells found at the scene. On Oct. 23, Joe was arrested. Prosecutors had no witnesses who saw Joe travel to Clifton that night (an eye condition made it tough for him to drive in the dark, and rains that night hampered visibility), no forensic evidence placing him at the scene, and no motive. But they had the flashlight and Robert Thorman, a bloodstain-pattern analyst who "claimed that the particular pattern on the lens had deep significance" and essentially testified the killer was holding it during the crime. Joe was found guilty and sentenced to 99 years. Read all of Part I for many more details on the trial. (Read more Longform stories.)