A free man's work is never done.
At least that's the case for Adam Braseel, 37, who was freed in 2019. He had been incarcerated for 12 years on a murder conviction for a killing he contended all along he didn't commit.
That moment was cause for celebration, but Braseel paid a price. He entered what's called a best-interest plea, or an "Alford plea" - meaning the defendant maintains his innocence - to a charge of aggravated assault.
Now he's seeking to clear his name of that charge as well. It all goes back to 13 years ago, when Braseel was charged with first-degree murder, robbery and aggravated assault in the 2006 beating death of Tracy City, Tennessee, resident Malcolm Burrows and the attacks on Burrows' sister, Becky Hill, and her son, Kirk Braden, court records show.
On Wednesday, Braseel will make his case to clear his name at the Tennessee Board of Parole's Executive Clemency Unit.
"It's been a long fight and it's still not over yet," Braseel told the Times Free Press. "This is raw emotion for us. We haven't done anything wrong and yet we're continuing to still go through this when everything came out that I'm innocent."
On Jan. 7, 2006, the then-22-year-old Braseel was spending a weekend with friends in the Grundy County town of Coalmont. That same night, the 60-year-old Burrows was beaten to death and his sister and nephew viciously attacked by a thin man with red hair who drove away in a gold-colored car.
Braseel was named a suspect the next day based on a photo lineup and a description of the suspect vehicle, both issues that were challenged by the defense in subsequent appeals.
In November 2007, Braseel was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison, largely based only on those two factors, but with no physical evidence tying him to the crime, according to court records.
Braseel's case since then has been a legal roller coaster ride of highs and lows.
As he sat in prison for the next decade, Braseel fought through multiple appeals, one generating a favorable ruling by Circuit Court Judge Justin Angel in 2015. Angel overturned Braseel's conviction based on ineffectiveness of counsel and released him from prison. Angel ruled that Braseel's attorney made mistakes such as failing to challenge a photo "line-up" that only included one photo.
Less than a year later, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Angel's ruling, reinstated the convictions and sent Braseel back to prison. The appellate court found that Braseel "failed to prove that he received ineffective assistance of counsel."
Soon after, however, Braseel's battle started going his way.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released fingerprint evidence found in Burrows' car at the crime scene in 2006 that for years was never linked to anyone. Braseel filed a petition for a new trial based on the new evidence.
That fingerprint was matched to another Grundy County man, Kermit Bryson, who in 2008 shot and killed Grundy County Deputy Shane Tate, then took his own life as a manhunt closed in.
In his petition, Braseel contended he and Bryson, a violent man with similar-colored hair and build, resembled each other, the cars they drove at the time were similar and that a wallet was found in Burrows' pocket by an officer who never testified at Braseel's 2007 trial. The state had contended the motive in the crime was robbery because the wallet was said in original trial testimony to be missing.
The hearing on that petition was held on June 26, 2019, with defense testimony about the new evidence and an account from a former acquaintance of Bryson's that he'd talked to her about Burrows while the two sat talking and getting high in a car on a Grundy County ridge top. She said Bryson talked about how he "had to kill him," referring to Burrows.
After some negotiations, the defense and prosecution agreed on the best-interest plea that let Braseel walk out of the Grundy County Courthouse unshackled.
In pleading guilty to aggravated assault, which is a felony, Braseel faced 3 to 12 years in prison but was released on the prison time he had already served.
That rankled him.
Braseel believes prosecutors simply wanted to save face and avoid being held accountable, so they placed him in a situation in which he couldn't walk free without a crime on his record.
"They should never have offered me this deal when we have exculpatory evidence that I'm completely innocent. It's obvious they offered this deal - this unrefusable deal - to cover their butts," Braseel said.
Twelfth Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said the assistant attorney who tried the case, Steve Strain, will represent the state at Wednesday's hearing in opposition of Braseel's exoneration. Taylor didn't think the state would have any witness testimony, and said he opposed exoneration on the aggravated assault charge.
"I have a problem with how they can say he's innocent when he pled guilty to one of the counts on the indictment," Taylor said Friday.
Nashville attorney Alex Little, who has represented Braseel through most of his recent court battles, said Wednesday's hearing will be, if not the first, one of the first, clemency orders sought from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. Because of COVID-19 measures, the hearing will be held electronically, Little said.
"We think Adam's got a very clear and understandable case for actual innocence," Little said. "We think it's an argument that should be persuasive, and we hope that the board will be receptive to it."
At Wednesday's virtual hearing, "we'll present some information and witnesses, and anybody opposing the exoneration will do the same. The board will ask questions, we'll get an opening statement and a closing statement, that's all I know," Little said.
While Little said he wasn't certain what to expect, "we're optimistic and we know that Adam's innocent and it's pretty clear to reasonable observers that's the case."
The Burrows family over the years didn't weigh in on the case until the "new evidence" landed back in court in March 2019 with Braseel's appeal for a new trial. Burrows' great-nephew Kirby Crabtree issued a statement to the Grundy Herald newspaper in Altamont, Tennessee, saying the family stood behind the jury's original guilty verdict.
"Our family has always been totally satisfied that the right man in this case was correctly identified, that he received a fair trial, and that justice was served with the right man being convicted and imprisoned for these crimes," Crabtree said, according to the Herald. "What's more, our family is in no way concerned that the so-called 'new evidence' in this case will be enough to either exonerate or grant Mr. Braseel a new trial."
Strain, the prosecutor, said Friday that the information he provided for the hearing opposing exoneration included history of the case, copies of appellate opinions that set out case facts, previous motions for Judge Angel to recuse himself from the case and affidavits from witnesses who knew Kermit Bryson.
Strain said the mistaken identity suggestion stems from the recent TBI fingerprint evidence from 2017 placing Bryson in the victim's car but he contends there was no trial testimony about heavy tattoos or a beard that appeared on Bryson at the time of the crime and should have been plainly visible to eyewitnesses.
Strain also said he submitted at least one photo posted on social media of Judge Angel with his arm around Braseel in the days after the ruling, suggesting impropriety.
Strain and Little both said they had no experience with hearings seeking clemency from the governor and were unsure what to expect.
"It's a process where it's completely at the governor's discretion. The board will play a role advising the governor but ultimately it's up to him," Little said. "We think the governor looking at this evidence should be able to come to a firm conviction that Adam is innocent and unjustly spent a decade in prison."
Braseel said Friday that he and his family have high hopes for exoneration. His sister, Christina Braseel, has been a primary supporter and leader in his fight for freedom from outside the prison bars. He's also had support from an online group of supporters from nearby and all over the country.
Christina Braseel said her brother deserves "to have a somewhat normal life, to be able to get a decent job, get married, have children, without having anything hanging over his head."
She said she is glad her brother is home, but he should still get justice and closure.
"I'm so proud of the man he's become. My dad would be so proud of him," she said.
As for Adam Braseel, he said, "I'm not in prison wondering if I'll ever come home an innocent man. I'm home now. So that burden is gone.
"Now it's about whether or not they're going to do the right thing and exonerate me on the exculpatory evidence that we have that I'm actually innocent.
"It's simple now."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.