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Documentary about a wrongfully convicted North Texas man has surprising relevance for Hays County

Sunday, September 11, 2022

In 2005, Brandon Woodruff was a typical 19-year-old from a conservative small town in North Texas, off at a nearby college and just beginning to explore his identity as a gay man. Reading about Brandon as he was then, I’m reminded of so many of my own queer friends and family, who only fully blossomed into their true selves once they gained some distance from their homophobic upbringings.

Unfortunately for Brandon, on October 16, 2005, an unspeakable tragedy struck. His beloved parents were brutally murdered in their own home. Brandon, who was the last person known to have seen them alive, quickly became a suspect. Although he, by all accounts, had a close relationship with his parents, and many friends and family said that Brandon’s parents knew about his sexuality and remained supportive, the town’s homophobic law enforcement agencies fixated on him as the target of their investigation. The gun that killed Brandon’s parents was never found, the timing of the murders made it nearly impossible that Brandon could have been in the area to complete them, and the motive assigned to him was iffy — he wanted his mother’s old truck, according to police. But in Brandon, a town saw a degenerate and a liar — someone who had “lied” about his sexuality for so long, and who was apparently dabbling in sex work in the big city of Dallas. The prosecution was so desperate for Brandon to be guilty that they took to illegally listening to his conversations with his attorneys while incarcerated.

Once this was discovered, instead of throwing out the case against Brandon, a judge decided to appoint special prosecutors to try his case. Adrienne McFarland and Ralph Guerrero of the Texas Attorney General’s Office were sent to Greenville to try Brandon. Despite surely knowing better, McFarland and Guerrero decided to stick with the homophobic strategy of the previous prosecutors, going so far as to try to introduce into evidence a list of “extraneous offenses,” which included the so-called crimes of homosexuality and appearing in gay porn.

Regardless of the lack of the evidence against him, Brandon’s fate was sealed. When he finally stood trial in 2009, the jury took only five hours to return a conviction. Jurors would later say that they wondered, “If he was lying about his sexuality, what else was he lying about?” Today, Brandon sits in prison, sentenced to life without parole for a crime he likely didn’t commit.

Scott Poggensee had been following Brandon’s case since his arrest, and became devoted to advocating for him after his conviction. Even though Scott is an EMT and not a filmmaker by trade, he began work on a documentary about Brandon’s case, eventually attracting a collaborator in journalist Richard Ray. Tomorrow, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m., Scott and Richard will screen their work-in-progress, “Texas Justice: Brandon Woodruff,” at the San Marcos Public Library.

I first learned about Brandon’s case earlier this year, while advocating for a defendant in another capital murder case: Cyrus Gray, III. A friend of Cyrus’s had reached out to local nonprofit Mano Amiga, convinced that an innocent man was about to stand trial here in Hays County. In March, Eric Martinez, Mano Amiga’s executive director, asked me if I would look into Cyrus’s claims. Although I was skeptical at first — surely, I thought, plenty of guilty people profess their innocence — as I got to know more about both Cyrus and the Hays County legal system, I came to believe his story. When Cyrus finally stood trial this summer after spending over four years in jail, I was able to see that the prosecution truly had no real evidence against him or his co-defendant, DeVonte Amerson — no murder weapon, no fingerprints, no DNA, no eyewitness IDs, no connection linking them to the victim, and no plausible motive. What they did have against Cyrus was some cellphone location data placing him in the general area of the murder (although San Marcos is still a relatively small town — I’m pretty sure my cellphone places me in that same general area as I type this), and three friends of his who claimed he’d confessed to the murder after the fact. Two of those friends recanted their stories on the stand, explaining that they’d been coerced into giving evidence against Cyrus by overly aggressive detectives. The third man has stuck by the general outline of his story, despite changing the details of it over time.

Watching the trial, I was puzzled why the prosecutor, Ralph Guerrero, seemed so intent on putting away a young man for the rest of his life on the flimsiest of evidence. It was only after I searched for stories about Guerrero online that I learned about Brandon, and became shocked by the similarities between his case and Cyrus’s. Cyrus isn’t queer, but he is a Black man in a predominantly non-Black county. I can’t help but feel that he’s been caught up in this because, as young Black men, he and DeVonte fit the general description of the assailants. And, just as the investigators in Brandon’s case failed to look at other suspects once they fixated on him, during Cyrus’s trial, we learned that other suspects in his case had never been properly investigated, either.

Cyrus’s trial ended when, after days of being deadlocked, three of the jurors tested positive for COVID, and the judge declared a mistrial. The prosecution has already scheduled a retrial for Oct. 31 As San Marcos celebrates Pride this weekend, we can rejoice in how far we’ve come by also acknowledging how far we have to go. Our criminal legal system continues to disproportionately target certain groups, including queer people. I hope my neighbors will come out on Monday night and learn more about Brandon and Cyrus’s stories, and commit to building a Texas that’s truly free of prejudice.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666