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tv   Nightline  ABC  October 16, 2021 12:37am-1:06am PDT

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♪ this is "nightline." >> tonight, the once-beloved high school principal convicted of murdering his wife. >> everybody, they just loved her. loved her to pieces. >> his decades-long fight to prove his innocence. >> when you have your soul mate and you love each other and you respect each other, it makes life wonderful. and we had a wonderful life. >> did authorities get this one wrong? >> things just did not add up. >> the shocking new information. >> you have another alternate, much more viable suspect. it completely changes the dynamic of everything. >> this special edition of "nightline," "the principal's wife," will be right back.
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♪ thanks for joining us. tonight, was it an open-and-shut case? or was he an innocent man who lost the love of his life and then spent decades in jail for a murder he didn't commit? here's abc's amy robach.
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♪ >> your life before prison, was it ideal? were you living your dream? >> oh, yes, perfectly. i may get emotional. >> it's painful to remember what life was like before? >> when you have your soul mate and you love each other and you respect each other, it makes life wonderful. and we had a wonderful life. >> reporter: joe bryan and his wife miki were pillars of their community of clifton, texas, outside of waco, until the unthinkable happened. >> 1985, joe bryan was the principal of the local high school. >> i loved it. i could not wait to get to work every day. >> his wife, miki bryan, taught
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fourth grade at the local elementary school. >> miki was the salt of the earth. a very practical, very depe dependable, what she said, you could write it in the bible. >> they were very devoted to each other. >> we cooked together. we washed and cleaned the cars together. we did the yard work together. we walked every day. >> reporter: joe went to a principal's conference in austin, texas, 120 miles away. miki stayed home. do you remember the last thing you ever said to her? >> yeah. i told her, i said, "i love you, i'll see you tomorrow." she said, "i love you too, i'll see you tomorrow." it didn't happen. >> next morning, i probably got to school about 7:15 or so. her door's closed. a few minutes later i look.
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still, her room is not open. the other three teachers, all three of us were together, and we said, this is not right, she's always here by 7:00, always. >> reporter: miki's fellow teachers soon heard the magic news. miki had been murdered, shot four times with a revolver. >> right now we're going to handle it as an intruder and a homicide. >> it was a complete shock that something like that would happen to miki. >> 120 miles away at this conference in austin, a colleague pulls joe out and gives him the worst possible news. >> can you describe what that moment's like, to hear that? >> your life is not like it was. >> i'm sure you had questions. >> i said what can you tell me? do we know how? all i know, he says, that miki's dead. i was heartbroken. >> reporter: authorities first
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thought miki's death was a robbery gone wrong. jewelry was missing, and $1,000 in cash. the bryans' .357 revolver is missing too, but no obvious sign of forced entry. >> that someone would have the audacity to go in our home and kill the most precious person, and you wonder why. who did it and why? >> did you have any theories? >> no. none. >> reporter: the town of clifton was on edge. just four months earlier, a 17-year-old girl named judy wittily, a sophomore at clifton high school, was found murdered. >> after miki was murdered, fear was all over clifton. people were scared. >> you had a teenager killed, now you had a schoolteacher killed. that's a lot. >> reporter: in the case of judy w witley, months go by. >> police say the murder remains
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a mystery and have declined to comment on any leads in the case. >> reporter: four days after miki's murder, authorities get a break in the case. they find a flashlight speckled with what looks like blood in joe's car. >> police now believe that the flashlight is linked to miki's murder, and the fact that it's found in joe's car in their minds implicates joe. >> law enforcement said the substance that was on the flashlight was blood type "o," which was miki's blood type. >> reporter: and joe says he finds the missing money in the trunk of his car. >> he said it slipped his mind, on the worst day of his life that that had happened. >> reporter: but list had searched the car earlier and had not found the money. >> for a police officer, that is very significant. that's going to set off alarm bells in the minds of these detectives. because in their view, joe bryan has just lied to them. for an innocent man, you don't
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need to lie about anything. armed with the information from the flashlight, along with what they consider to be a false story from joe bryan, police get an arrest warrant for joe bryan. >> the doorbell rang, i went to the door will, and there stands the sheriff, mr. riley, texas ranger, and rob brennan, police chief. hey walk in, tell me i' arrested for the murder of miki. >> i said, you got to be ?- kidding. >> i didn't believe joe murdered miki for a second. >> it wasn't just that many people in clifton doubted joe had a reason to kill miki, a lot of them doubted joe could have killed miki. >> reporter: joe had an alibi, that conference in austin 120 miles away. >> so for him to have driven to clifton in a rainstorm and killed his wife, cleaned up, and gotten back to austin and been in a meeting in a suit and tie at 8:00 in the morning was
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virtually impossible. >> but we're talking about 9:00 at night, and when she was found at 7:00 the next morning, that's a lot of hours in there. makes you wonder. initially, everybody thought he was innocent. then all the rumors started. >> reporter: when authorities had searched joe bryan's car, they found a chippendale's calendar in his trunk. >> joe said the calendar was something he and miki bought together as a gag gift for one of their single friends. but that chippendale calendar police took as proof positive, this man is gay, and therefore had motive to kill his wife. >> reporter: it was illegal to be gay in texas in 1985. >> things are different now today than they were back then. in central texas, it was a big thing. especially the principal of your high school. >> reporter: out on a $50,000 bond and under suspicion for killing his wife, joe's life started unraveling. >> miki's family cuts off all
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communication with joe. >> he's disgusting. if you want out of a marriage, that's what divorces are for. you don't shoot somebody. a lot of people knew from the get-go that he had done that. >> bryan pleaded not guilty today in open court. >> reporter: at joe's trial, the prosecutors only presented circumstantial evidence. >> the murder weapon is literally missing. there was nothing that placed joe in clifton that night. no eyewitnesses saw him or his car. even more importantly, there was no forensic evidence gathered from the crime scene itself that conclusively showed joe bryan was the murderer. the prosecution hinged on the flashlight. >> james charles blue, plant city, florida, told prosecutors blue found a bloodstained flashlight in the trunk of bryan's car. >> reporter: an investigator with limited training in the new science of blood spatter testified at trial that the killer would have been holding the flashlight during the murder, then changed his clothes
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and shoes. >> so the implication was that if it was your bedroom, your clothes, and your shoes, it would be easy to change, and that implicated joe bryan. >> bryan, in tears, turned to the jury and said, "i did not kill miki, so help me god." >> reporter: the jury took less than four hours to find bryan guilty, sentenced to 99 years in prison, the maximum. when you hear that guilty verdict? >> you're stunned, like how could they do this? >> their beloved high school principal. >> you can't believe something like that can happen to you. when we come back -- >> things just did not add up. >> a shocking piece of new information was found. >> does a cold case hold a clue to miki's murder? >> you have another alternate, much more viable suspect. it completely changes the dynamic of everything. >> and could an innocent man be in prison? >> this is a bombshell.
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"nightline," "the principal's wife," continues. here again, amy robach. >> joe bryan guilty of the october 1985 shooting death of his wife miki -- >> convicted and sentenced, former clifton high school principal, joe bryan, on murder charges -- >> reporter: joe bryan was serving his 99 years in a state prison, convicted of murdering his wife, miki. >> the state's version was that joe was 120 miles away in austin, texas. he drove through the night, back
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to clifton. he murdered miki when she was in her house alone. got rid of the murder weapon, drove back to austin, and pretended to be ignorant of everything that had happened when he was informed the next day. >> reporter: but two years after his conviction, there was a huge break for joe bryan with his appeal. testimony at bryan's trial had pointed to a $300,000 life insurance policy on miki's life as motive. >> but the truth was, they had insurance on each other that was half that amount. >> that was a critical fact that the court of appeal felt merited a new trial. >> reporter: his conviction was overturned, but prosecutors retried him and won again. but doubts about joe's guilt still lingered in some people's minds. >> i was publisher of "the clifton record." also was editor. was following the case and things just did not add up. i didn't think he did it. i didn't think he had the
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personality to do that. it appeared miki and him got along fine, just a remarkable couple. >> reporter: the judy witley case comes back to the forefront. >> the high school student's body was later found in a wooded area not far from her home. >> in 1991, i was visited by don witley. they had not solved his daughter's murder and it bothered them all the time and they thought about her all the time. >> reporter: the witley family wanted the show "unsolved mysteries" to investigate. leon smith agreed to help contact the show and also worked with the new clifton police chief to go through judy's file. his focus turns to a suspect named there, dennis dunlap, a local cop who had been part of the clifton police force who made many of the women in clifton uneasy. >> when he saw you, he got hooked and he didn't leave you alone. >> reporter: dunlap had been a suspect in judy's murder.
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>> dunlap volunteered to be the cop who broke the news to judy's family that she had been murdered. >> dunlap had told the family things that he should not have known. >> reporter: he was investigated and given a polygraph. >> afterward, the examiner concluded that dunlap was not responsible for the death of judy witley and had not been sexually involved with her. >> fellow officer kenneth fields says dunlap was, however, relieved of his duties and he resigned the very next day. he then left town. >> reporter: six years later, judy's death remained unsolved. but fellow officer kenneth fields continued to believe dunlap was responsible. >> feels wrote in an affidavit that he wanted to arrest dunlap after he'd left town, but was told he had no case. >> fields said he kept investigating but just could not get any hard evidence against dunlap. >> now that leon learned dunlap had been a suspect in the murder, the logical question was whether or not he had anything
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to do with miki's murder. >> reporter: leon wrote dunlap letters about judy's murder. >> so now he had begun this campaign to try to see if he could get him to come forward, come clean. >> reporter: but done lap never admitted to anything. years later, he hanged himself in his garage. the clifton police and the texas rangers investigate, interviewing dunlap's most recent ex-wife. >> yes, he had called his mother and he says, "mom, they're after me again," something to that effect, "about that murder there in clifton." i heard him whispering to the phone, "i'm glad they didn't find gray tape in the trunk of my car." >> reporter: the ex-wife went on to say dunlap had confessed he'd murdered judy to his closest friend. that friend then told her about it. hoping to get a posthumous indictment, the police department continued to
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investigate. >> although they weren't able to get that indictment, the clifton police department still wanted to provide an answer to the witley family. and in 1999, they publicly named dennis dunlap responsible for the death of judy whitley. >> reporter: new focus on miki's murder. could dennis dunlap have killed her too? according to the defense team, the interview with the ex-wife seemed to offer a clue. >> did he mention any other murders or any other cases? >> he -- the lady, the principal murdered her? all he told me was that he dated her. he was dating that lady. i want to say, i'm not for sure, he dropped her off that night or that evening. >> not only do you have another alternate, much more viable suspect, but even if you don't count him as a suspect, the entire narrative of the state's theory has to change.
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>> reporter: by 2018, joe bryan had been incarcerated for 30 years. by all accounts, a model prisoner. >> you have to accept the fact, whether you like it or not, you're in prison. you can either make the most of it and be the person you always were, or you can be someone who acts out, is rude, crude, disrespectful. i chose to be me. >> reporter: always maintaining his innocence, he had been denied parole since 2007. >> joe told me when i visited him in jail, if i have to die in prison, i'll just have to die in prison, but i did not kill miki and i'm not going to say that i did just to get out. >> reporter: but the ruling in an evidentiary hearing kept joe in prison. >> the court made the call that the new evidence presented by the defense was not persuasive enough to overturn the conviction. >> reporter: and the prosecution said the defense did not present evidence showing that dennis
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dunlap is the murderer of miki bryan and that he is not. in the spring of 2020, after being denied parole seven times, on his eighth attempt, joe bryan was finally released. what do you want the world to know about you, joe? >> number one, i'm not a killer. i didn't kill miki. i loved miki. she was -- she was my other self. >> what do you tell her? >> i'm ready to see you, i can't wait to see you again. >> our thanks to amy. i'll be back with the "final note." we meet the hero, the all-new nissan frontier. hero faces seemingly impossible challenge. ♪ tension builds... ♪ the plot twist.
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♪ finally tonight, a preview of the abc news special about the women who built hip-hop. >> who is she? so bold, so free. >> the women of hip-hop have given our culture something to stand on. something to be proud of.
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something to say that, this is not a man's world. we were on the front line. we built this culture as well. >> you can watch "the real queens of hip-hop: the women who changed the game" this monday at 10:00 eastern here on abc. that's "nightline." watch our full episodes on hulu. see you back here same time next week. thanks for staying up with us. good night, america.

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