A D.A., a Judge, and an Alford Plea

In January 2006, 60-year-old Malcolm Burrows was lured from his home in Tracy City, Tennessee by a man who claimed he was having car trouble. The man beat Burrows to death, then returned to Burrows’s home and attacked his sister, Becky Hill. She survived the assault only because her son, Kirk Braden, intervened and fought the man off.

Hill and Braden reported to police that their attacker was a boyish, red-haired man driving a gold-colored vehicle. Investigators honed in on then-24-year-old Adam Braseel because he matched the description. When Hill and Braden subsequently identified Braseel from a photo lineup, prosecutors charged him with murder, assault, and robbery. He was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Braseel has always maintained his innocence. No physical evidence linked him to the crime scene and multiple witnesses confirmed his alibi. But it wasn’t until almost a decade later, in 2015, that Circuit Judge Justin Angel overturned Braseel’s conviction, ordered a new trial, and released Braseel from prison.

Angel’s ruling flipped this seemingly run-of-the-mill, if tragic, homicide on its head ― revealing a Shakespearean comedy of errors and mistaken identity that became Braseel’s real-life nightmare. 

I spoke to Angel to better understand how he could come to view the case so differently from his predecessor. “I don’t know if I saw it differently or not,” Angel told me. “I guess we were sitting in different chairs at that time. I don’t know if you watch sports, but the referee during a sports game is right there in the action. There’s quick decisions to be made and you do the best you can. Every day as a trial judge, you’re in the action and you make the best decisions you can, all day long. And I never found any errors with what the judge may have done or didn’t do, but he was in a different position. When I got the case years later, I didn’t have to make the quick decision. I could sit there and just really scope out the entire case.”

Scoping out the entire case meant reconsidering the only evidence presented at trial: eye-witness testimony from the two surviving victims, Hill and Braden. “Looking back on it, I saw some issues at the trial that I thought should’ve been worked out,” Angel explained. “You have a 24-year-old kid with no criminal history, no history of violence, working full time, no connection to the deceased, no motive, no DNA evidence of any kind. Things didn’t line up. You had two witnesses saying the person had red hair and drove a gold-colored vehicle. That was it. Adam Braseel had red hair and drove a gold-colored vehicle. Back to my sports analogy: the referees on the field make the best call they can in the moment, and sometimes they get it wrong. You got to go to the replay booth, put it on the slow motion, take it frame by frame, and really parse it out. That was the different perspective I had. I was able to look at it with a fresh set of eyes. And I entered the order that set aside his convictions and released him from prison on Christmas Day of 2015.”

This fact that Judge Angel submitted his post-conviction ruling on December 25, 2015 did not escape the attention of District Attorney Steve Strain, who prosecuted the case. “I’ve never understood why the judge… would grant him a new trial and send the opinion out on Christmas day,” Strain told me. “I’ve never seen a judge do anything on Christmas day. That’s totally unprecedented… It’s not for me to say whether the judge is biased, but… the Christmas day opinion, the victims thought it was a Christmas present for the defendant.”

Strain contends that Angel’s post-conviction ruling, which found that Braseel’s original defense attorneys did not adequately challenge the eyewitness testimony, and thus denied him a fair trial, is unfounded. “The identification issue was Kirk Braden coming into the jail,” Strain explained. “There were several pictures on the desk in the investigator’s office and he just saw it and said, ‘Hey, that’s him right there.’ That is not the way that I would have suggested they do it, but that’s what happened.”

Strain insists that the photo lineups were not suggestive, and the eyewitness testimony is reliable. “When Braseel appeared at the residence, saying he had car trouble, Becky Hill had ample opportunity to observe him. When he came back and began attacking her, her son, Kirk, came out and fought with Braseel. He told officers he hit him on the cheek. The description matched Adam Braseel. Medium-build, short red hair, ball cap. Kirk Braden went by the jail maybe two days later, saw the picture, and said, ‘Hey, that’s him right there.’ He also identified the hat, and Braseel had a mark on his cheek consistent with being struck. Becky Hill subsequently picked him out of the lineup once she was released from the hospital.” 

Strain appealed Angel’s decision, and 10 months after Braseel’s release, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals overruled Angel’s decision and sent Braseel back to prison.

I asked Angel why he thought the DA appealed his ruling. “Well, I’m bound by judicial code of conduct and board of professional responsibility rules, so I can’t really critique or comment on the performance of a district attorney,” Angel explained. “I can just say, in general, these are all very rural counties and a murder is a big deal. It makes the news. The community is alarmed. There’s a lot of immediate pressure on law enforcement to make an arrest and get a conviction. The prosecution’s job is to get a conviction, and once they get the conviction, to preserve it. They were doing their job and, in the end, the system worked, because the truth finally came out. It just took a long time to get there.”

In 2018, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation matched a previously unidentified fingerprint from the crime scene to Kermit Bryson, a local felon who killed himself in 2008 while on the run for murdering a police officer. Braseel and Bryson, who didn’t know each other, were similar in physical build and appearance, and drove similar-colored vehicles. Braseel’s new attorneys again brought the case before Angel, arguing this new evidence would have played a pivotal role in the jury’s verdict, had it been presented at the original trial.

Strain disagreed. “Our view is that Adam Braseel was found guilty of killing Malcolm Burrows and we still feel that he was guilty of killing Malcolm Burrows,” he told me. “From our standpoint, that view has not changed… We felt from the get-go that this was not just Adam Braseel. We’ve always felt that there was a third party. Obviously, we didn’t have proof and Kermit’s name was never part of it. And, of course, there’s no way to know when that fingerprint may have got there.”

Despite his uncompromised view, at the hearing before Angel on August 2, 2019, Strain agreed to drop the murder charges if Braseel agreed to enter a “best interest” plea, also known as an Alford plea, to the aggravated assault of Becky Hill. Braseel agreed. “He’s a convicted felon now because of that,” Angel explained. “I didn’t want to take the plea because I knew he was innocent, but I also knew that it was his guaranteed ticket to get out of prison.” 

A best interest, or Alford plea, is a counter-intuitive and controversial legal measure in which a convicted person pleads guilty while maintaining their innocence. The plea has played a role in the release of other wrongfully convicted persons like Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley, also known as the West Memphis Three. It is often employed by prosecutors as a last ditch effort to save face. “I don’t really agree with it,” Angel told me, “especially when it’s used to let somebody get their pound of flesh or to apply pressure on somebody to get a result, but I understand why it’s in our system, so I have to accept it.”

As with the West Memphis Three, the cost of Braseel’s freedom is a felony record that he doesn’t deserve. But Braseel isn’t complaining. After over a decade, he’s finally back home with his loving family. And this has left an impression on Angel. “This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to release somebody from prison who’s innocent of a crime,” he said. “I would hope that a wrongful conviction is few and far between. But I do think that there are innocent people who get brought into the system all the time.”

Since the hearing, Angel has been outspoken in his support of Braseel, and it’s left a bad taste in Strain’s mouth. “I’ve never seen a judge behave the way he has. I mean, I’ve never had a judge interviewed by the media,” he told me. “It concerns me because it reflects on the justice system. Judges recuse themselves from cases where there is the appearance of impropriety. Judge Angel’s actions in this case have caused the victim’s family to really question his impartiality.”

But the takeaway for Angel is simple. “I think that we should never rest on our laurels and be complacent in anything we do in life, especially our justice system,” he told me. “We should always be trying to improve it. So this is really an effort of, maybe self-diagnosis, and trying to figure out what we can do to stop this from happening in the future.”

There was one last unprecedented thing Angel had up his sleeve. “I released him on a Friday,” he said. “And it was only a couple of days later I made contact… I pulled up and Adam was sitting out in the back by himself, looking at the mountains. He walked over and we gave each other a hug. I was close to crying… Just thinking about all the time that was taken away from Adam. Time is the most valuable commodity you have in this world. I just looked him in the eyes and apologized to him.”

“When it is all said and done,” Angel told me, “I’m the presiding judge of 12 districts, I’m the head judge of six counties, the president of the [12th Judicial District] bar association. I thought that somebody owed Adam an apology on behalf of the legal system, and nobody else was going to do it.”