A black man in a white town

The Mail on Sunday magazine, February 10 1991

Clarence Brandley always knew the truth. Long before his own trouble started – before the white girl was killed, before he was blamed, before he was condemned to death – he knew how dangerous it was to be a black man in a town like Conroe.

He could remember as a young boy being told how his own grandfather, ‘Putt’ Brandley, had been shot dead by a white bully in front of scores of people doing their Saturday shopping, killed for his colour with no chance of his murderer ever being arrested or punished.

They might say that things had changed since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but in a town like Conroe, in a place like East Texas where the whites used to hang out signs warning “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here”, Brandley knew that things were just the same – a little less brazen, but just the same.

His mother, Minnie Ola, had seen the changes for what they were. She remembered the day when black people were finally allowed to walk through the front door of the restaurant where she worked in the centre of Conroe and sit down and eat alongside the white folk. She used to clean the floors and wash the dishes there, so she saw with her own eyes how they took the dishes that the black people used and smashed them and threw them away so that white people would not be tainted by them.

Yet, even knowing all that, Brandley was caught unawares by the wave of hatred that swept through the town and carried him off with it after a teenage white girl named Cheryl Fergeson was found dead in Conroe High School one Saturday morning in August 1980. And he could never have foreseen the fight that would follow nor the cast of unlikely heroes who would come to his rescue in a story that scandalised the state of Texas and exposed a side of their life that most Americans like to believe does not exist.

Brandley, now aged 39, worked at the high school as a janitor and he was there on the day that Cheryl Fergeson was strangled and raped. There were four other janitors working there that day and a host of other teachers and parents and visitors. But he was the only black man in the school.

The killing caused such fear in Conroe, with parents threatening to boycott the school, that they called in a Texas Ranger to investigate. He was named John Wesley Styles. He wore a white stetson hat and a silver badge hammered out of a Mexican five-peso piece, he was over six feet tall, he had a belly like a barrel and a voice that was as deep as hell. Ranger Styles had been in Conroe for less than one day before he arrested Clarence Brandley and charged him with murder. Then he started looking for evidence.

Four months later, Brandley had been tried, convicted and sent to Death Row. Despite the Texas Ranger’s efforts, there never was any evidence to link him to the crime: no eyewitness, no finger print or footprint or telltale scrap of fibre. He was just the only black face in a completely white courtroom. During the trial, an elderly white woman sat on the public benches with a pearl necklace and a floral hat, chanting under her breath “Kill the nigger, kill the nigger” and no-one told her to shut up. One juror did try to speak up for Brandley and protested that they could not convict a man without evidence, but the other jurors called him ‘niggerlover’ and shouted him down. Brandley was sent away to die.

For nearly five years, he sat in a cell and waited for the courts to hear his appeal. Texas Death Row is an eerie place, a long low redbrick building ringed by two wire fences with sentries riding shotgun in towers at each corner. It sits way out in the middle of a swampy plain that stretches so far that they say an escaper could start running for his freedom and still be shot in the back the next day by one of the guards. Every couple of months, they lead a man out of the door at the end of Death Row, away to a brightly-lit room where they strap him to a stretcher and, in front of several dozen worthy witnesses, they inject him with deadly chemicals which paralyse his heart.

In the winter of 1985, Brandley heard that he had lost his appeal. He was taken back to the courthouse in Conroe, wreathed in chains, to be told that he must be strapped to the stretcher on January 16 1986. To him, it was just a date. He did not understand that the white judge had picked it because it was his court clerk’s birthday and he wanted her to have this black man’s execution as a special gift.

All Brandley knew was that he was on the verge of dying for the crime of being a black man in a white man’s town. He had no idea that somewhere in Conroe there were people who knew he was innocent, people who were finally beginning to stir, preparing to shake the town to its foundations.

It began with a mountainous white woman named Brenda Medina. She weighed 15 stone, she had so many chins her face was pushed back at a permanent angle, she lived in a broken-down shack with a pack of young children round her ankles and she hated black people. But when she heard that Clarence Brandley was about to die for the killing at the high school, she went to a lawyer in Conroe and told him that her former boyfriend had confessed the killing to her on the day that it happened more than five years earlier. Her boyfriend was a young white man named James Dexter Robinson, who had once worked at the school.

Events now began to race. Brandley’s lawyers brought in two investigators. One was a successful businessman named Jim McCloskey who had given up a life of comfort to become a priest and, in turn, to work as a kind of private detective devoted to uncovering miscarriages of justice; the other was a Mexican-American named Richard Reyna, as tough as cowhide and as smart as a whip, who had been a deputy sheriff in Conroe until he rebelled against the corruption and went to work for himself. This unlikely pair set out to build on Brenda Medina’s revelation to finally uncover the truth about the death of Cheryl Fergeson.

They persuaded James Dexter Robinson to take a lie-detector test. Every time he protested his innocence, the lie detector screamed its doubt. Finally, Robinson stumbled into silence, staring at the floor, shaking his head, until after four full minutes without speaking, he concluded: “I don’t know. I’m just not sure. I could have done it and forgot. I don’t remember.”

They found the four white janitors who had been at the school on the day of the murder. One, a derelict alcoholic called John Sessum who lived alone in a grimy shack that stank of urine, wept with shame as he confessed to McCloskey and Reyna that he had seen the young girl being grabbed and done nothing to help her. It was James Dexter Robinson who had taken her, he said, together with another janitor named Gary Acreman. The two of them had dragged her into a restroom and then they had set about blaming Clarence Brandley. He had never told the truth, he said, because he had been threatened by the burly Texas Ranger.

Another of the janitors, Henry ‘Icky’ Peace – a Humpty Dumpty character standing 4′ 10″, weighing 12 stone and with a voice like a child – told how he, too, had been threatened by the Ranger and how he had heard a Conroe policeman declare that someone had to hang for the crime and ‘the nigger is elected’. Even now, he was too scared to tell McCloskey and Reyna everything he knew. Instead, they asked him questions and he agreed to paw the ground with his foot – once if they were right, twice if they were wrong, like Trigger the talking horse whom he had watched on television.

Icky Peace’s fears turned out to be justified. When they found out that he was starting to talk, the Conroe authorities threatened to sack him from his job at the school. Brenda Medina was beaten up in her home. Drunken John Sessum was attacked near his shack. Richard Reyna was bombarded with threatening phone calls and had his car tyres slashed. Other witnesses were beaten, shot at, run off the road in their cars and sent threatening letters. But the avalanche of truth could not be stopped.

After years of silent acquiesence, the black people of Conroe were emboldened to join the fight. They came out of their run-down shacks with the corrugated iron rooves and crossed the railroad tracks to the white side of town, to the courthouse, where they chanted and shook their fists and demanded justice and, in finding their courage, they inspired a voice of protest to rise from black ghettoes across Texas. There were huge rallies in Houston, marches on the state parliament in Austin.

And soon, the state Attorney General and the Governor and the newspapers and the TV stations were all involved, and they had no option but to allow Clarence Brandley a new court hearing and to stage it far away from Conroe in a courthouse on the island of Galveston on the rim of the Gulf of Mexico. The hearing, in September 1987, became an exorcism, in which the old spirit of the racist south was dragged into the open and beaten away.

Watched by rows of anxious black faces, the witnesses to the death of Cheryl Fergeson at last told their story in public. John Sessum wept as he confessed his cowardice. Icky Peace faltered but finally told how the police had made him sign a statement that he could not even read. James Dexter Robinson and Gary Acreman were led into the witness box and tormented with questions they could not answer.

And finally, the white law men of Conroe were called to account: the big-bellied Texas Ranger, the power-hungry District Attorney, even the judges were cut to pieces by Brandley’s attorneys, forced to reveal how they had lied and threatened and plotted together to kill the black janitor.

After three weeks, the judge had heard enough. Clarence Brandley was innocent, he declared. The lawmen were liars. “In the 30 years this court has presided over matters in the judicial system,” he added, “no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation, an investigation the outcome of which was predetermined and public officials, who for whatever motives, lost sight of what is right and just.” Conroe was guilty.

As the judge gave his ruling, the courtroom erupted. The defence lawyers were hugging each other, the press were shouting and shoving, all the black people on the benches were chanting and cheering and, in the midst of it all, Clarence Brandley, who had sat in rigid silence through the weeks of evidence, finally unbuckled and quietly wept.

The lawmen of Conroe appealed. The courts of Texas dragged their feet and kept him locked away as long as possible, but, in January 1990, ten years after they first arrested him, the white authorities of Texas were compelled to release Clarence Brandley and give him back his life because, in spite of themselves, things had changed just that much.

** White Lies by Nick Davies, published by Chatto and Windus February 11 1991. Price £14.99.