The Raw Edge of Texas Racism : WHITE LIES: Rape, Murder, and Justice, Texas Style, <i> By Nick Davies (Pantheon Books: $22.95; 397 pp.)</i>
Conroe, Tex., “squats on the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest about 40 miles north of the city of Houston.” Pretty little town. Nice folks. Nice schools. Nice courthouse. Nice place to visit.
But after reading “White Lies” by Nick Davies, you wouldn’t want to live there. Not if you are black.
On Aug. 23, 1980, a blond, blue-eyed 16-year-old girl named Cheryl Fergeson disappeared while in search of a women’s restroom at Conroe High School. Two janitors--Clarence Brandley, black, and Icky Peace, white--later found her body hidden under some scenery flats in the loft above the auditorium stage. She had been raped and strangled to death.
The janitors were interrogated and made to sign statements, then were taken to the hospital and made to give sputum, blood and hair samples from their head and pubic areas. Then a cop drove them back to the high school to drop them off.
“ ‘One of you two is gonna hang for this,’ said the cop. Then he turned to Brandley. ‘Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.’ ”
One week later, Brandley was arrested for raping and murdering Cheryl Fergeson. He was 29 years old.
Brandley hadn’t done anything, nothing, not anything at all--except be born black--and there was never the slightest shred of evidence that he had. But the officials in the Conroe courthouse (with its featureless walls shining “as bright as a whited sepulcher”) kept after him for nine years with the white community’s vociferous approval.
Dist. Atty. Jim Keeshan lied to Brandley’s defense attorney to get Brandley before the Grand Jury, then lied to the Grand Jury to get a murder indictment. He lied to keep Brandley from ever getting bail. He lied to prevent the defense from ever getting access--as required by law--to any of the state’s evidence.
The medical evidence that would have cleared Brandley was “lost.” The original exhibits in Brandley’s two trials were “stolen.” The medical examiner “forgot” the results of the dead girl’s autopsy, “mislaid” his notes and “threw out” the samples he had taken from her body.
Texas Ranger John Wesley Styles terrorized witnesses whose testimony would have supported Brandley’s innocence, then coached the rest in outright lies for perjured testimony. He feloniously reversed the polygraph test supporting Brandley’s innocence.
The sheriff, Gene Reaves, defied a court order to release Brandley on bail. “That little nigger,” he said, “don’t belong on the ground.” Faced with the sheriff’s intransigence, Judge Lee Alworth promptly reversed himself and denied bail.
The defense recused Alworth-- a legal challenge that forces a judge to resign or face charges before the District Court--and also the next two judges to sit in judgment on Brandley.
One of them, Judge John Martin, actually met DA Keeshan secretly in chambers each morning to fix what his rulings would be that day in court. Even after recusal, Martin briefly reassigned himself to the case following Brandley’s death sentence so that he could set the date of execution on the natal day of Peggy Stevens, district clerk at the Conroe courthouse. Stevens wanted “the nigger’s” death as a birthday present.
All of these people knew, absolutely, from the evidence they themselves had suppressed, that Brandley was innocent.
In early spring, 1981, Brandley was transferred to death row in Huntsville State Prison. Only two stays won by the defense from the District Court kept him alive until 1987, when Judge Perry Pickett, the most senior district judge in Texas, finally allowed the defense, for the very first time, to present its evidence and to question those involved in the “project” to convict Brandley of a murder he hadn’t committed.
After hearing the testimony, Pickett commented, “In the thirty years this court has presided over matters in the judicial system, no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, (and) witness intimidation. . . . The continued incarceration of Clarence Lee Brandley under these circumstances is an affront to the basic notion of fairness and justice.”
But it was another two years-- January, 1989--before the nine judges of the Texas Court of Appeals bothered to uphold Pickett’s judgment. Even then, because of appeals by Conroe’s elected officials, Brandley did not actually walk “through the heavy gates of death row and out into the sunlight” until January, 1990,--nine years after an all-white jury took 45 minutes to convict him on perjured testimony of a murder for which he was blameless.
“White Lies” is part thriller, part true crime, part detective story, part investigative journalism, painful to read because it so brilliantly re-creates events in Texas during the last decade that would have been revolting to any civilized society a century ago. Yet the book is also exhilarating to read because good finally does triumph over evil. Finally, it is vital to read for its documentation of not only “the legendary racism of the Old South, red in tooth and claw,” but also a new, gentle racism, “so natural it was almost benign,” that even today chooses to believe Judge Pickett senile and Brandley guilty rather than hold a mirror up to its own ugliness.
Conroe’s activist racists who “could sacrifice a worthless black life for their pride and their careers” have flourished in this rich soil. From it grows a final ironic and horrible fact: Sheryl Fergeson’s rapist-murderers (both white males), unearthed by Brandley’s attorneys, never have been charged with anything by any law-enforcement official in Texas despite almost irrefutable evidence of their guilt.
Through it all, Nick Davies never loses sight of this true crime being committed: Texas racism, 1980s-style. “White Lies” should be required reading for all Texans, all politicians, judges and law-enforcement people: It should also be required reading for anyone with a passion for justice, compassion for the downtrodden, concern for our nation, or complacency about our national record in racial equality.