After 12 years behind bars, repeated appeals in his 2007 murder conviction and finally being freed in 2019 on a plea to a lesser felony charge of aggravated assault, a Grundy County, Tennessee, man has been exonerated of that final charge and can live his life with a clear record.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday exonerated 38-year-old Adam Braseel of that felony charge along with granting clemency to 16 other offenders seeking reviews of their cases by the governor, according to a news release from Lee's office.
The governor said the exoneration in Braseel's case offers justice where the criminal justice system fails.
"That's exactly why we're doing an exoneration today because part of the process, part of the system includes the ability for an exoneration when the evidence becomes clear that there's been a breach of the justice system as was the case in this particular person's life," Lee said in a telephone news conference. "That's why we've done what we've done today."
Executive clemency in the form of exoneration refers to a finding by the governor that the applicant didn't commit the crimes for which they were convicted, according to the release.
Reached by telephone, Braseel was celebratory in the wake of the announcement and thankful to the governor.
"He didn't have to do it, and I realize the insurmountable odds I had to overcome to get where I'm at," said Braseel, now married and living in the Knoxville area. "Just because I'm completely innocent and a faithful man of God didn't mean I'd ever come home. So I'm not only home justly free, I'm now justly exonerated."
Braseel said he talked with Lee about the decision and the situation.
"I told Gov. Bill Lee I'm undeserving of a lot of things, but I'm not undeserving of being exonerated," he said. "This word, exonerated, is just for people like me. The system has failed us, and it's his responsibility, and he capitalized on that responsibility - that opportunity - and it's humbling."
Braseel said he was thankful for his family, his and his family's supporters and everyone who believed in him for so long.
"My story is a story of hope. It's about perseverance and how perseverance pays off. It's about never giving up," he said. "Don't lose that hope. Keep fighting. Get back on that horse and do something about what you can do something about."
Braseel said the exoneration was not only a win for him but a win for everyone who supported him and everyone still seeking justice from behind bars. In the future, he said, he'll help others like himself.
Braseel was freed in 2019 on a plea to aggravated assault - a best-interest plea also known as an Alford plea in which he maintains his innocence - in return for the dismissal of the 2007 conviction on a murder charge that had put him behind bars for 12 years.
Braseel walked away a free man, but with a felony on his record that he stubbornly maintained was forced and unjust. The state's seven-member Executive Clemency Unit panel in June 2020 voted unanimously for exoneration after more than six hours of testimony, questions and discussion, including testimony from Braseel himself.
Braseel had been charged with first-degree murder, robbery and aggravated assault in the 2006 beating death of Tracy City resident Malcolm Burrows and the attack on his sister, Becky Hill, and her son, Kirk Braden. Hill and Braden have since died.
Braseel's sister in Grundy County, Christina Braseel, was ecstatic Thursday over the announcement.
"I'm feeling like a million bucks," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Pelham, Tennessee. "On day one I said I will not stop until my brother is exonerated. It's happened, and now he can have his life back."
How it began
On Jan. 7, 2006, the then-22-year-old Braseel was spending a weekend with friends in the Grundy County town of Coalmont on the same night that 60-year-old Malcolm Burrows was beaten to death and his sister and nephew 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 and highlighted in Braseel's June 2020 clemency hearing, along with other defense evidence. The photo "line-up," for example, only included one suspect for witnesses to consider - Braseel.
In November 2007, Braseel was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison, largely based on those two factors, but with no physical evidence tying him to the crime, according to court records.
As he sat in prison for the next decade, Braseel fought through multiple appeals, one producing a favorable ruling by Circuit Court Judge Justin Angel in 2015. Angel overturned Braseel's conviction, citing ineffectiveness of counsel, and released him from prison. Angel ruled that Braseel's attorney failed to challenge defense issues like the photo line-up.
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."
In 2017, 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 in the front yard of a Monteagle home 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 held June 26, 2019, on that petition included 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. That hearing was recessed for more than a month before it continued on Aug. 1, 2019, and the defense and prosecution agreed on the best-interest plea that let Braseel walk out of the Grundy County Courthouse a free man.
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 - but with a felony conviction on his record.
At the time, Braseel said he felt he was put in a position in which he had no choice but to plead guilty or remain in prison for what could potentially have been the balance of a 51-year life sentence.
Now, Braseel wants to look forward and take life as it comes.
"One day at a time I'm going to have the best day of my life," he said Thursday.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said he hopes Braseel's case leads to improvements.
"I think so often in the United States this type of error has gone forward, putting people in prison for things they didn't do and once it's pretty clear or fairly clear they didn't commit the crime it's as tho the government doesn't want to own up to errors made by persons in the judicial system," Hakeem said Thursday in a conversation with the Times Free Press in Nashville.
"I think it speaks well of the state of Tennessee and the governor to do that in such a case, and I would hope it sets a precedent that we are more careful in the judicial system about evidence and not holding people unnecessarily after it's been shown they're not the culprit," he said.
Angel, the judge who remanded Braseel's case for a new trial in 2015 and freed Braseel in 2019, also praised the governor's decision and offered Braseel's case as a lesson.
"For Adam Braseel, the justice system and the citizens of this great state, this full exoneration by Governor Bill Lee is a victory," 12th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Justin Angel said Thursday in an email. "Adam Braseel is completely innocent, and now his name and reputation are fully cleared. All of us in the judicial system need to take heed of this travesty and improve daily to ensure this never happens again."
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.