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Is Tennessee man wrongly imprisoned for murder?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/19/2017 Matt Lakin
Adam Braseel is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in the death of Malcolm Burrows. His family insists a Grundy County, Tenn., jury convicted him wrongfully. © Provided by Christina Braseel via Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel Adam Braseel is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in the death of Malcolm Burrows. His family insists a Grundy County, Tenn., jury convicted him wrongfully.

TRACY CITY, Tenn. — Adam Clyde Braseel clocked out of work, borrowed his mother’s car and headed to the mountain for a weekend of four-wheeling with friends. He took about a 45-minute break in between to lure an old man from home in the dark, beat him to death by the roadside, steal his wallet and try to silence an eyewitness.

He made it to his next stop in time for a late supper.

That’s the argument that convinced a Grundy County, Tenn., jury to send Braseel, then 24, to prison for life a decade ago for the death of 60-year-old Malcolm Burrows. A judge set him free a year and a half ago and ordered a new trial, calling the evidence of Braseel’s guilt insufficient. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision and took that freedom back.

He’s 37 now. He’ll be 76 if he lives long enough to appear at his first parole hearing.

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The case has divided this small southeast Tennessee community on the Cumberland Plateau and raised questions about the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and what issues qualify as fair game under Tennessee’s appeals process.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” Braseel said in a phone call from prison. “I try to stay positive, but I’m realistic. I know I could be an innocent man in prison the rest of my life.”

A clean-cut case

No other suspect was ever charged in the case. Not a single piece of physical evidence linked Braseel to the crime scene — no fingerprints, no DNA, no blood, hair or clothing fibers.

Prosecutors say they didn’t need it.

“Two eyewitnesses clearly identified him,” said prosecutor Steve Strain. “He was tried like anybody else. He was represented by two established, very experienced attorneys, and the jury found him guilty.”

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Two more eyewitnesses later swore they saw Braseel in a church parking lot at almost the exact moment of the crime. A friend testified he saw Braseel walk through his door minutes after the killing — calm, clean and composed as far as he could tell.

The Tennessee Supreme Court chose earlier this year not to hear Braseel’s case. That leaves one further avenue of appeal — a petition in U.S. District Court to have the conviction declared unlawful.

Such petitions are rarely granted — if ever.

The red-headed man

Becky Hill wasn’t looking at the clock when her brother, Malcolm Burrows, went to answer the door of his house the night of Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006.

Hill couldn’t be sure of the time — maybe 9 p.m., maybe 9:15. Her son, Kirk Braden, had gone to bed. She never heard the visitor’s name, but she noticed his hair, red and close-cropped.

The man said his car had died just up the road. Burrows offered to help. He grabbed a jacket and car keys and headed out the door.

Soon the man came back. Burrows had sent him for starter fluid — right there under the kitchen sink, he said.

“And just as I raised up ... that’s when he hit me the first lick in the head,” Hill later testified. “It knocked me down, and I hollered for my son, you know, ‘He’s killing me.’ ”

Braden charged into the kitchen. The man grabbed a fire extinguisher and slung it at him, then ran.

The house had no phone, so Braden went to a neighbor’s to call 911. Dispatchers logged the time — 9:52 p.m.

Dead man in the dark

An autopsy found Burrows had been struck as many as a dozen times, maybe more, with enough force to split his skull nearly in two.

“Whoever did it should have had blood all over them,” recalled then-Grundy County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Mike Brown, now retired.

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Burrows had no shortage of friends and enemies. He dabbled in local politics. He also had a reputation for shady dealings, including a 2003 felony conviction for selling pills.

The nature of the location — damp, loose leaves, scattered brush and asphalt — meant fingerprints, clothing fibers and other trace evidence would be scarce to nonexistent.

Within 12 hours, police had their first and only suspect.

‘Nothing to hide’

Authorities never said at trial what led investigators to Braseel, a Grundy County native with no criminal record beyond a misdemeanor marijuana arrest. But by 1 p.m. the next day, his name came up.

“I guess I’m the one who pointed the finger at him,” Brown said. “I just figured we didn’t have many people on the mountain with red hair. One of my snitches said there used to be a guy who lived in the valley with red hair that she went to church with as a kid.”

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Officers found Braseel at a friend’s home. He agreed to a search of his car. He turned over his ballcap, boots and the clothes he said he’d worn the night before.

“I had nothing to hide,” Braseel said.

He told authorities he’d left work that Friday, borrowed the car and spent the night at the home of a friend, Charles Partin, in Coalmont, Tenn. He left between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m. He drove around for a half-hour or so before heading to the home of another friend, Josh Seagroves.

He got there at 10 p.m. — eight minutes after Braden’s 911 call. They ate a late supper, rode four-wheelers on the mountain with other friends and slept in Sunday.

“My buddy told me not to worry about it,” Braseel said. “I thought this was all going to be worked out.”

A fitting image

The trial lasted three days in November 2007. Hill pointed out Braseel as her attacker. Her son did the same.

But Hill couldn’t give a consistent account of how she picked him out of a photo lineup.

Hill didn’t see the lineup until nine days after the killing — and a week after her son, still living with her, had already identified Braseel’s photo. No one asked mother or son whether they’d talked about his identification.

Braden saw mug shots on a desk as Grundy County Sheriff Brent Myers was cutting them out. According to Myers' testimony, Braden "pointed at the picture and told me that that picture was the one that had did it."

Myers handed all the photos to Braden. "I told him that I wanted him to make sure that he had picked out the right photo," Myers testified.

Braden swore he was shown Braseel’s photo first.

“He showed me the first photo and I identified him,” the son testified. “He come up and asked me, yes, ‘Is this the man who done it?’ ”

Experts say that’s one of the worst possible ways to conduct a photo lineup.

“People want to believe the human memory is like a camera, but it’s more like an Etch-A-Sketch,” said Gary Wells, a distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “Once a witness identifies a suspect, then he becomes their memory. When they think back to the crime, they see his face. Their recollection is tainted, and there’s no way to get that back.”

Hill died in 2011, and Braden couldn’t be reached for comment. A knock at his door in Tracy City drew no answer.

A legal seesaw

Jurors deliberated for a total of about three hours before finding Braseel guilty of first-degree murder.

Eight years later, on Nov. 17, 2015, the gavel tapped for a hearing on his bid for a new trial. A new judge, Justin Angel, presided this time.

“Identification alone is all that ties the petitioner to the crimes,” Angel wrote. Based on “clear and convincing evidence … The petitioner is entitled to a new jury trial.”

Braseel came home from prison on bond. His freedom didn’t last.

Prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision as unfounded. Ten months later, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed.

“These witnesses had a substantial and prolonged opportunity to observe the offender amid adequate lighting and from close distances,” Judge Timothy Easter wrote.

That decision sent Braseel back to the prison cell where he sits today at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Pikeville, Tenn. His latest attorney, Alex Little, hopes to file a petition in federal court by month’s end.

Braseel works in the prison garden, takes part in a ministry and calls home every night. His sister Christina helps lead a social media campaign.

“I try to stay patient, because I can’t just sit here and dwell on it,” Braseel said. “Everybody in Grundy County knows I’m innocent. Why doesn’t the justice system?”

Follow Matt Lakin on Twitter: @mlakin

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