"Just don't be hugging everybody," a correctional officer advised Joe Bryan shortly before the 79-year-old walked out of Texas State Penitentiary for the first time in 32 years on Tuesday. It was well-meaning advice in the midst of a pandemic. But "that is like telling a dog to stay out of the meat house," Bryan put it to the Waco Tribune-Herald, which reports he was soon rushed and hugged by his nieces. There were more than two dozen family members and supporters waiting for Bryan, a former high school principal convicted of the 1985 shooting death of his wife in their Clifton home—the subject of a two-part investigation by ProPublica and New York Times Magazine in 2018. The investigation cast doubt on the bloodstain-pattern analysis used to convict him and pointed to a deceased police officer blamed for another murder four months earlier.
Bryan, who was attending a conference 120 miles away in Austin, per ProPublica, has always maintained his innocence. His initial conviction was overturned. But he was convicted again in 1989 and sentenced to 99 years. "I think if I had admitted to it, I would have been out years ago," he told the Tribune-Herald, noting he was first eligible for parole in 1996. "But I didn't do it." Write lawyer Jessi Freud said "what we were hoping for was to exonerate Joe," but "the most important thing was him not dying in a place where he never should have been." Bryan, who suffers congestive heart failure, will be on parole for the rest of his life. Fitted with an ankle monitor, he may also be on house arrest in Houston, at least initially. "Whatever it takes to do this, I will do it," he said. "This is a very good day, and I am so thankful." (Read more prison release stories.)