During a Grundy County, Tennessee, man's exoneration hearing before the state Board of Parole that ended with a unanimous recommendation to Gov. Bill Lee for exoneration, the petitioner's line-up of witnesses included a sheriff and judge who were harshly critical of the original investigation and of the legal defense presented at trial.
Adam Clyde Braseel, 37, was freed last year 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 his 2007 conviction on a murder charge that had put him behind bars for 12 years.
In 2006, Braseel was charged with first-degree murder, robbery and aggravated assault in the beating death that year of 60-year-old Tracy City resident Malcolm Burrows and the savage attack on his sister, Becky Hill, and her son, Kirk Braden. Hill and Braden have since died.
Braseel walked away a free man in August 2019 but with a felony on his record that he contends was unjust, an opinion now shared by the panel that heard his application for exoneration on Wednesday.
After Wednesday's hearing, Braseel said he first thanked a higher power.
"I just want to first say glory to God," Braseel said Wednesday night. "Then, I'm thankful for all the people who had a part to play in where I am."
For Braseel, Wednesday's hearing wasn't just about clearing his record.
"It's about trying to restore what's been taken away from me," he said. "I'm home after taking a deal to come home an innocent man to ensure my physical freedom. I did that in hopes of going through this that we're going through now."
Wednesday's hearing was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Braseel's attorney, Alex Little, presented witnesses, photos and case files that took up the first four hours or so of the hearing, followed by 12th Judicial District Assistant District Attorney Steve Strain's presentation of opposing arguments, testimony and evidence.
Some strong criticism of the original investigation that led to Braseel's conviction arose in testimony from current Grundy County Sheriff Clint Shrum and Circuit Court Judge Justin Angel, both of whom came to the case later. Angel was elected to the bench in 2014, replacing retiring Judge Buddy Perry, who had presided over the trial and Braseel's earlier post-conviction efforts. Shrum was elected in 2014, defeating former Sheriff Brent Myers, who was in office at the time of the crime. Myers died last year.
Shrum told the panel records of the original investigation have disappeared and he has been unable to learn why or where they went, and he didn't think much of the investigative work.
"I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but this was some of the worst police work I have ever seen in my life," Shrum told the board. He called last year for a new trial for Braseel and said the original investigation was fraught with problems.
"I have had to gain everything as far as investigative notes and material through other parties," Shrum said, "and so putting together what I have seen following this case, I believe the sheriff's office made a mess of this investigation early on."
Shrum couldn't answer why investigators were so convinced the culprit was Braseel.
"There's no rhyme or reason to any of this to me," he said. When asked if he thought Braseel was innocent, Shrum said, "Yes, sir."
Judge Angel, who was in law school at the time of the crime in 2006, said he was unfamiliar with Braseel's case until it landed in his lap in 2015.
There was "no DNA evidence, no motive, no criminal history, no connection to the deceased, no confession " linking Braseel to the crime, he said. The crime was a beating death that should have left behind DNA in the form of the victims' blood that could have placed Braseel at the crime scene if he was there, he said.
Angel said that in his rulings he never contended that Braseel was innocent because that's not the judge's role, but he had instead ordered a new trial. He said he was surprised after a three-hour break in last August's hearing that a plea deal was struck in return for vacating Braseel's murder and robbery convictions.
When the state made the decision to take a plea to a lesser charge "it's clear now that the state conceded that he didn't commit the murder," Angel said. "When they let go of that, it's clear if he didn't commit the murder, he wasn't there and he didn't commit these other crimes either."
Angel "felt compelled to let the governor know and to let the board know that Mr. Braseel's innocent," he said.
The Burrows family remained unconvinced of anything argued by Braseel's side and continued to stand behind the original verdict that put the man they believe deserved a life sentence in prison.
"We loved Malcolm and Becky very, very much," said Kirby Crabtree, speaking for the Burrows family on Wednesday. Crabtree is the nephew of the victims, Burrows and Hill.
"I would also like to state that our family has always been totally satisfied that the right man in this particular case involving my uncle's homicide and my aunt's assault was correctly identified and that he did receive a fair trial," Crabtree said. "We believe with all our hearts that justice was served and that the right man was convicted of these particularly cruel crimes."
Strain put on one witness, Tina Bretz, who owned a car said to have been confused with the one Braseel was driving. She testified that her car wasn't even running at the time of the crime and that her boyfriend, whose name arose in 2017 in fingerprint evidence at issue in Braseel's appeals, never left a birthday party she was having that night.
After all parties had exhausted their remarks, the board spent about 10 minutes reviewing materials.
The state's Parole Board members include chairman Richard Montgomery and members Zane Duncan, Gary M. Faulcon, Tim Gobble, Mae Beavers, Roberta Nevil Kustoff and Barrett Rich.
Beavers is the only member appointed to the panel by Lee, in 2019. Montgomery and Faulcon were appointed by former Gov. Bill Haslam in 2013, Gobble in 2013 and again in 2016. Rich was appointed in 2014 and Duncan and Kustoff were appointed by Haslam in 2016.
Gobble and Kustoff have the closest ties to Southeast Tennessee.
Gobble is a former Bradley County sheriff, according to biographical information on board members. Gobble also was East Ridge city manager until 2013, when he was appointed to the board.
Kustoff hails from Chattanooga, where she practiced as a private attorney, then later worked in the Shelby County Trustee's Office as the delinquent tax attorney.
After 10 or 15 minutes of deliberation, the panel Wednesday night voted unanimously to recommend exoneration.
Gobble said Braseel "is innocent of the charges related to this case, and I recommend that the governor grant him full and complete exoneration."
Rich said he didn't find "clear and convincing" evidence that Braseel was innocent of the crime and that the state's attorney, Strain, put on facts that argued there was "a possibility" Braseel committed the crime.
"However, I do believe that there's no way in any court at this point that I would believe that Mr. Braseel would be convicted. There's no proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Rich said, noting the standard for guilt in a criminal trial. "I find by the preponderance [of evidence] at a minimum, that Mr. Braseel did not commit this crime and vote for exoneration."
Montgomery, the chairman of the board, noted Angel's position that he believed Braseel was innocent "was strong testimony" and that he believed "the facts lean toward Mr. Braseel being innocent in this."
Lee's press secretary, Gillum Ferguson, said Thursday in an email that the governor was aware of Wednesday's exoneration hearing and expected a finalized recommendation file to be sent by the board to the governor's office.
"Once we get the file from the Board of Parole, the governor will thoroughly review the case and determine whether to grant an exoneration for this individual, but there is no set timeline in which the governor must make a decision," Ferguson said.
Braseel's troubles began on Jan. 7, 2006, when the then-22-year-old 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 savagely 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 an eyewitness identification from a photo lineup and a description of the suspect vehicle, both issues that were challenged by the defense in subsequent appeals and highlighted in Wednesday's clemency hearing.
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. Issues such as a photo line-up that included only one suspect — Braseel — were later used by Braseel to challenge the case against him.
To win his release from prison, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated assault — the charge he was seeking exoneration from this week.
Braseel said he believes his case is call for change.
Wednesday's recommendation for exoneration "shows the world why there needs to be a prosecutorial oversight committee," Braseel said. "It's not OK for them to just do what they want and not be accountable. Shame on them for what they've done to me and my family."
Braseel's plea to the governor?
"The truth is out there. Exonerate me."
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.
TENNESSEE BOARD OF PAROLE MEMBERS
Chairman Richard Montgomery, a native of East Tennessee, was appointed to the Board of Parole in January 2013. He was appointed chairman in July of that year. He is a former state representative from Sevier County, serving in the General Assembly for 14 years. Montgomery, a graduate of Hiawassee Junior College and the University of Tennessee, is retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he was Operations Manager for UT‐Battelle for 27 years. He was elected and served 16 years on the Sevier County Board of Education, and served as chairman for six years. He was recognized in 2012 with the Gordon Fee Leadership in Education Award, presented by the Tennessee Business Roundtable and was named as Legislative Official of the Year by the Tennessee School Board Association. The Tennessee Hospitality Association named him Legislator of the Year in 2010 and was he honored by the Tennessee County Officials Association as Legislator of the Year in 2002. As a lawmaker, Montgomery served as chairman of the House Education Committee and worked on other key committees during his term in office. He also served on several joint committees, including the Select Committee on Corrections Oversight, the Joint Lottery Scholarship Committee, the Joint Education Oversight Committee, the Joint Workers Compensation Committee and the Select Committee on Children and Youth. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Richard Montgomery to be a member of the Board of Parole on Jan. 9, 2013. Haslam appointed Montgomery to the post of chairman on July 1, 2013. Since becoming chairman of the Board of Parole, Montgomery has been appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Public Safety, the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism and the Tennessee Council for Interstate Adult Offender Supervision.
Zane Duncan, a native of Knoxville, is a graduate of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. Prior to his 2016 appointment to the parole board, he worked as Public Relations Manager for the R. J. Corman Group in Nicholasville, Kentucky. He has also served as an appraiser for the Knox County Property Assessor and worked in public affairs at the Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C.
Gary M. Faulcon
Gary M. Faulcon, a native of Tennessee, was appointed to the Board of Parole in October of 2013. He served as a member of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department for 25 years. While with the Metro Nashville police department, he was assigned to numerous divisions, including background and recruitment, criminal investigations division, vice division and S.W.A.T. Immediately prior to his appointment, he served as the department’s Bomb Squad commander. Faulcon received a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Tennessee State University and a master’s degree in Public Service Management from Cumberland University.
Tim Gobble was appointed to the Board of Parole by Governor Bill Haslam in July of 2013. He started his career as a police officer in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1988. In 1989, he joined the United States Secret Service, where he worked as a special agent and supervisor from 1989-2004. While working with that organization, he was assigned to cities including Nashville, Houston, Washington, D.C. and Chattanooga. From 2004-2006, he served as director of the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency. He was elected sheriff of Bradley County in 2006 and served in that post until 2010, when he ran for an open seat in the United States House of Representatives. Following that, he was appointed Deputy Chief of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. In April of 2011, he was appointed City Manager of East Ridge and served there until February of 2013. He rejoined the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office as Interim Deputy Chief in February of 2013, and served in that capacity until his appointment to the Board of Parole. Gobble earned a bachelor’s degree in Government and Public Administration from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University) in 1986. He was re-appointed to the board in January of 2016.
Mae Beavers, a resident of Mt. Juliet, was appointed to the Board of Parole by Governor Bill Lee in December 2019 with her six-year term beginning in February 2020. The Trevecca Nazarene University graduate has served as a former court reporter, paralegal and securities broker. In 1990, she was elected to the Wilson County Commission, where she served four years, and also attended Nashville School of Law. In 1994, she was elected to the 57th District House of Representatives, a seat which included parts of Wilson, Rutherford and Marshall counties. In 2002, Beavers was elected to the 17th District Senate Seat where she served until September 2017. During her tenure in the Senate, she served as the chairwoman of Senate Judiciary Committee, chairwoman of Joint Government Operations Judiciary and Government Subcommittee and as first vice chair of the Transportation Committee.
Roberta Nevil Kustoff
Roberta Nevil Kustoff is an attorney who has practiced law since earning her Juris Doctor in 1998. She spent several years in private practice before joining the Shelby County Trustee’s Office in 2010, where she served as the delinquent tax attorney. In that role, she represented county government in Chancery, Circuit and General Sessions Courts. A native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kustoff is a graduate of Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, and earned her J. D. at the University of Memphis. She has been a member of the Tennessee and Memphis Bar Associations, the Association of Women Attorneys of Memphis and the Memphis Estate Planning Council. She has also volunteered through Subsidium and the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary. She was appointed to the parole board in January of 2016.
Barrett Rich, a native of Fayette County, served three terms in the Tennessee General Assembly prior to his appointment to the parole board in 2014. He is a former state trooper, working first as a road trooper, and later on the Governor’s Security Detail for former governors Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist. His other professional experience includes work as an insurance agent for the Tennessee Farm Bureau. Rich is a graduate of Bethel College in McKenzie, and received his Juris Doctor from the Nashville School of Law. In 2008, Rich was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives from the 94th District. He was chosen by his colleagues as Freshman Class President and Republican Assistant Floor Leader in the 106th General Assembly. His terms in the 107th and 108th General Assemblies included service as Republican Majority Whip, vice chairman of the Government Operations Committee and chairman of the Health Sub-Committee. He was a member of the Judiciary Committee, the Health Committee, the Criminal Justice Committee and the Ethics Committee. He had also served as a member of the state Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission.
Source: Tennessee Board of Parole