A Grundy County, Tennessee, man wrongfully convicted in 2007 of a murder he didn't commit and since released from prison and exonerated by the governor has now been awarded $1 million by the state to compensate him for the 12 years he unjustly spent in prison.
On top of that, Adam Clyde Braseel, now 40, and his wife, Raquel, had even better news this week as they welcomed their son into the world Thursday. It's been a banner week, Braseel said Friday.
"It's humbly overwhelming," Braseel said in a phone interview over new baby sounds in the background. "It's just all been unfolding. It's been crazy."
Four years after his release, Braseel now lives in Campbell County with his wife and new son. Since he was freed in August 2019, Braseel has been making up for lost time, traveling, hiking, four-wheeling, getting married, advocating for others who were wrongfully convicted, meeting with the many people who supported him throughout his journey toward justice and becoming a father.
He has also worked hard over the past few years with his attorneys, Alex Little and Zack Lawson, to clear his record and seek compensation for the loss of 12 years of his life.
In recent weeks, Braseel said he was informed by his attorneys that the Board of Claims had made a decision to pay him the $1 million cap on compensation set down in law 40 years ago.
"It was the most Tennessee could give me, according to the law," Braseel said. "The law needs to be changed."
The $1 million cap was established in 1983, Braseel said, based on an economy that existed four decades ago.
"That's 1983," he said. "What would that look like today?"
Braseel was critical of the way state law breaks down how such compensation is paid.
"They only gave me a little over $300,000, and the rest I'm getting over 30 years," he said. "We had to pay the attorneys out of that $1 million off the top."
Still, he said, "This is a huge win because we got the $1 million cap. They understood that I'd been wronged, and they did all they could under the law."
More important to Braseel is to use his story to help others. He said more work needs to be done for the innocent people behind bars.
"The reason I'm speaking about this is to offer the hope that they, too, can overcome the odds," he said. "As I'm informing, it's educating and motivating others."
HOW IT STARTED
From the beginning, Braseel maintained his innocence. His list of losses over a dozen years behind bars tally birthdays, holidays, changing seasons, new technologies, friends, a chance to be with his mother as her health declined — and a wife. They had been married 18 months when he was arrested in 2006, but they grew apart as he stayed in jail because, he said after his release in 2019, she knew he had a 51-year life sentence hanging over his head even though he was innocent.
Braseel's legal roller coaster began Jan. 7, 2006, when the then-22-year-old 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, Becky Hill, and nephew, Kirk Braden, were attacked by a thin man with red hair who drove away in a gold-colored car. Hill and Braden have since died.
Braseel was named a suspect the next day based on a photo lineup and a description of the suspect vehicle, both issues challenged by the defense in subsequent appeals and highlighted in Braseel's June 2020 clemency hearing. The photo "lineup," for example, only included one suspect for witnesses to consider, and that was Braseel.
In November 2007, Braseel was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison, primarily based on those two factors, but with no physical evidence tying him to the crime, according to court records. Life in prison means the defendant will service 51 years before becoming eligible for parole. Braseel would have been in his 70s.
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 the ineffectiveness of counsel, and released him from prison. Angel ruled that Braseel's attorney failed to challenge defense issues like the photo lineup.
Less than a year later, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Angel's ruling, reinstated the conviction 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 that 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 the 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 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 he still had an unearned 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 out or remain in prison for what could potentially have been the balance of a life sentence.
That's when Braseel began pursuing exoneration on the aggravated assault charge to clear his name fully, and the state's seven-member Executive Clemency Unit panel voted unanimously in 2020 to recommend exoneration after more than six hours of testimony, questions and discussion, including considerable comments from Braseel himself.
On Dec. 2, 2021, Lee granted exoneration in Braseel's case.
His record cleared at last, Braseel set his sights on compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction by seeking an award from the Board of Claims and filing a lawsuit.
In November 2022, Braseel filed a 12-count federal lawsuit against Grundy County and the former investigators who put him behind bars, according to records in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga. The suit doesn't specify an amount but seeks an award of nominal, punitive, compensatory and presumed damages for each of 12 counts related to alleged violations of his civil rights on the part of investigators and the county government.
The suit names the Grundy County government and the estate of deceased Sheriff Brent Myers, former Chief Deputy Lonnie Cleek, former Deputy Andrew West and retired TBI agent Larry Davis in their individual capacities, the document states.
In their January 2023 answer to Braseel's suit, the defendants denied any wrongdoing in the investigation; denied there was a wallet that was conveniently missing or that Braseel's physical description differed from Bryson's; denied there was a failure to provide a reliable photo lineup for the victims to identify their attacker or that fabrication of evidence took place on the part of investigators; or that prosecutors were malicious in their actions, court documents show.
The case is still pending in court as an April 2024 trial date approaches, according to court records.
For the Braseels and their new baby boy, the future is a wide-open canvas.
"I'm going to continue to live in the moment and capitalize on things I've learned I took for granted," Braseel said. "I'm going to continue to have the best days of my life and especially with my wife and new baby boy making lasting memories."
Braseel said he owes thanks to the "army" of supporters who have attended his hearings and voiced encouragement in his legal battle for freedom for more than a decade. He also added thanks to the TBI for the fingerprint evidence that overturned his conviction and former Grundy County Sheriff Clint Shrum for voicing his support for Braseel's release.
"If it wasn't for this village, I wouldn't be here today, I wouldn't be celebrating four years justly free, I wouldn't be exonerated, I wouldn't be compensated and I wouldn't be celebrating the birth of my son," Braseel said. "And for all these people who have helped me in so many ways, I'm so thankful."