Sarasota Herald-Tribune


September 21, 2014

SPECIAL REPORT: Is Andre Bryant an innocent man?

A STICKUP.
A MANHUNT.
A MISTAKE?




A long time ago, a family was robbed.
The police pounced. A man went to jail.
A lot of people wondered if the law got it right.
It sure doesn’t look like it.


Andre Bryant, Jr.
Andre Bryant Jr., 8, holds a photo of his father. The boy does not remember meeting his father in person. Photo by Brian Blanco

EDITOR'S NOTE: This reporting is based on 1,400 pages of police and court records, including trial transcripts, depositions, witness statements and photo lineups. The newspaper also spoke with 26 people familiar with the case, including a two-hour jailhouse interview with Andre Bryant and several subsequent phone calls with him. The newspaper granted five people anonymity in this story: three victims who were children at the time of the robbery and two men who sat on the jury. The Herald-Tribune does not normally identify children who are victims of violent crime and used their initials in this case. The jurors asked that their names not be used because of the high-profile nature of the arrest and prosecution.

BY ELIZABETH JOHNSON
elizabeth.johnson@heraldtribune.com

Eight years ago, a young black man robbed a white woman and her children at gunpoint.

This happened at a Walgreens drive-thru in a neighborhood where violent crime is rare.

The victims were a deputy’s wife and children.

This was one of those watershed moments for Manatee County, what with a middle-class family robbed on the side of town where things like that simply are not supposed to happen.

It took detectives four hours to book a suspect and the state of Florida just 10 months to try, convict and sentence a man to three decades behind bars.

The case was tidy. Open, shut; bad guy in prison.

But some of it — a lot of it, actually — didn’t add up.


Andre Bryant was convicted of robbing Lori Cline in 2006 at a Walgreens in Bradenton. Credits: Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, Elizabeth Johnson, SNN

Andre Bryant, 20 at the time, was the only person formally investigated. He also happened to be the first man with dreadlocks to drive past a police cruiser that night. He looks nothing like the person witnesses described, other than the fact that he is black.

Nobody ever checked out his alibi.

There were no fingerprints left behind, no bits of DNA.

The state of Florida would have you believe that an admitted cocaine dealer with $6,500 cash on him stops on his way home to rob a lady of $10 and a purple wallet.

Here was a man with two children of his own sticking a pistol to a teenager's temple. He takes the risk of all risks, even though he is on probation and already has a warrant out for his arrest.

He commits a crime, leaves and decides to drive right past the scene 15 minutes later, when it is crawling with cops.

The state’s theory always seemed sketchy, never more than it does today.

The Herald-Tribune spent nine months examining the case against Bryant, now 28 and serving his seventh year in a Panhandle prison. New evidence suggests Bryant is not the robber and shows how lawmen developed tunnel vision during their inquiry, dismissing clues and other suspects during an abbreviated investigation.

Manatee Sheriff's detectives continue to defend their work and insist that they got their man.

The official line remains that Bryant, already a convicted felon, committed the robbery and later led police on a high-speed chase on Aug. 3, 2006.

But sometimes facts change.

For one thing, a man in county jail signed a legal document saying that another inmate confessed twice — the day after Bryant was convicted and again when he was sentenced. That affidavit has never been made public or filed in a court proceeding. And unlike Bryant, the man fits the original description down to a T: light, almost caramel skin, dreadlocks and bad acne scars.

Secondly, a witness told the newspaper that she was pressured by her friends to pick a certain number out of the police lineup the day she identified Bryant. She now believes Bryant is not the robber.

And then there's the jury.

One member says he was bullied in the deliberation room, not allowed to ask questions and worn down by others. He finally relented and voted guilty, but believes he made the wrong decision.

"Being this lady was who she was," Bryant says, "somebody had to go down for it."

For nearly a decade, Bryant has fought for justice — seeking help from attorneys and books in the law library at Graceville Correctional Facility.

Finally, his case is gaining traction. The Innocence Project of Florida started an independent investigation of the case after it was presented with new evidence discovered by the Herald-Tribune. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are required to answer his latest appeal by the end of this month.

Sheriff Brad Steube and the lead detective declined to meet with a reporter, but the department issued a statement on the case.

"If there is new evidence which points to the possibility that Andre Bryant did not commit the crime he was convicted of, the Sheriff's Office is receptive to that information," Steube said.

State Attorney Ed Brodsky said his office is reviewing court filings and new documents obtained by the newspaper to determine how to respond to Bryant's appeal.

During phone conversations and a jailhouse interview, Bryant maintained his innocence, offered clues to where he was that night and pressed authorities to take a second look at his case.

"(God) know I ain't do it. A lot of other people know I ain't do it," Bryant said. "I just pray that He work through the people that He choose to work through to prove my innocence.

"I didn't rob nobody."

MANATEE BURNING

Context here is important. You have to understand what Manatee County was like in 2006.

Street gangs, particularly SUR-13, claimed whole neighborhoods. There were stickups and shootings from Rubonia and Palmetto down into east Bradenton, Oneco and Samoset.

Murders, rapes, robberies and burglaries all increased from the year before. Twenty people were murdered in 2006. The Sheriff's Office averaged more than a robbery a day.

"We were dealing with an epidemic of crack cocaine and trafficking and an upstart of gangs in the community that law enforcement was not prepared for at the time," said Charles Smith, a former Palmetto councilman. "It was very dangerous. It didn't make no difference what your background was. You were subject to being robbed — even in broad daylight."

Police officers and sheriff's deputies logged overtime chasing down criminals and trying their best to stem the tide. But most of the violence was limited to the parts of town the affluent don't see or often visit.

The Walgreens in question is near a church and elementary school. Six blocks away is Riverview Boulevard, where some of the oldest and wealthiest families live. The mayor of Bradenton, for instance, has a house not far from there.

No matter where a violent crime happens, catching the bad guy is rare. In 2006, deputies cleared just one in every five violent crimes with an arrest.

Robberies are particularly difficult to solve.

The newspaper examined all of the robberies investigated by the Sheriff's Office in the month following the Walgreens incident.

Of 34 incidents, deputies made arrests just four times. Twenty-five cases are unsolved and inactive. The rest were either unfounded or not pursued at the request of the victim.

Of the four that resulted in arrests, the suspect remained at the scene, left an ID behind or was known to the victim.

Bryant did not fit that pattern.

TUNNEL VISION

Detectives zeroed in on Bryant from the jump and never considered anyone else.

Bryant became the prime suspect about 15 minutes after the crime, when he drove past the Walgreens and Deputy Jason Hottman spotted him a quarter-mile away.

Hottman, on the force for 16 months at the time, says Bryant slid down in his seat when he passed the cruiser; Bryant says that never happened.

Knowing he was wanted for violating probation, Bryant sped away, ditched his vehicle and hid in a duplex. Surrounded by police, he eventually gave up and figured he would be charged with violating probation.

Instead, he was wanted for armed robbery.

He offered an alibi: that he was driving from his grandmother's house to meet a friend. He had a phone conversation with his jailed brother while he was there. A cousin could verify he was at the home in Palmetto.

Detectives never interviewed the grandmother, brother or cousin. Nor did they pull jail phone calls, which are recorded and kept by their own agency.

Sgt. Ricardo Alvarado was assigned the case. With 12 years on the force, Alvarado is known as a dogged investigator and has worked some of the most difficult crimes in Manatee County.

As police surrounded the duplex where Bryant hid, Alvarado began gathering evidence for a raid and omitted important details on the search warrant affidavit.

The detective wrote that Lori Cline, the only adult witness, was "90 percent" sure that Bryant was the robber. But he did not report that Cline checked the box indicating that "none" of the photos matched the suspect.


Detectives found guns and drugs inside an SUV driven by Andre Bryant and the duplex where he hid. Photos provided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office

Alvarado, meanwhile, did not include victims’ statements that the robber was light-skinned and had pockmarks on his face — “crater face,” said Cline’s son, one of the three children in the vehicle.

Alvarado and other detectives had the warrant signed and they raided the duplex and a sport utility vehicle after Bryant surrendered. They found guns and drugs — but nothing that tied Bryant to the robbery.

There was no Hawaiian T-shirt that all four witnesses said the robber wore. Officials did discover a pistol in the attic, but it did not have Bryant's fingerprints.

Meanwhile, the stolen wallet was nowhere in the duplex or car. But the wallet's contents were not totally lost.

The next morning, a man who lived about four miles from Walgreens found Cline's ID and bank card near his driveway. The exact location is, at its nearest point, one and a half miles from Bryant's route, which was tracked by helicopter. Deputies said they never saw Bryant toss anything from his vehicle during the chase.

And yet the Sheriff's Office held a news conference the next day to announce that it had solved the case.

This is unusual for a robbery, especially one in which so little was stolen and no one got hurt.

Cline, then 41, stood before TV cameras and reporters, thanked the agency for solving the crime so quickly and said:

"The thing that I found that was the most horrible was that when I pleaded with him about the children and to drop the weapon, he had no emotion whatsoever in his eyes."

Bryant was booked into the county jail, but Manatee County's crime spree continued — punctuated by a shocking murder that could be the key to understanding what really happened at that Walgreens in 2006.

A NEW SUSPECT?

Daniel and Roberta Ramsey were married 30 years.

The couple went out to lunch for Valentine's Day 2007 and returned to their home in Samoset about 12:15 p.m.

Daniel Ramsey saw a strange car in the driveway and an intruder running from the house. Ramsey, 67, armed himself with a knife.

His wife begged him to stay in the car, but he confronted one burglar in the yard. Another emerged with a revolver stolen from the Ramsey home. Anthony Lewis shot Ramsey dead and sped away with his accomplice, Michael Walker.

The duo, Lewis and Walker, were later captured.

There was no reason for detectives to suspect either man in the Walgreens robbery — except for the fact that Walker, 18, had a long rap sheet, dreadlocks, light skin and deep acne scars.

Walker has never been accused of the Walgreens robbery by law enforcement, but the newspaper obtained documents claiming he confessed to the crime while behind bars.

Walker has rejected three interview requests by the Herald-Tribune. He is serving 50 years for his role in the Valentine's Day killing.

Officials did investigate Walker and his partner, Lewis, in a string of residential burglaries before February 2007.

In those cases, authorities believe the men broke into homes, ransacking and vandalizing them. They would pour eggs, ketchup, milk, shaving cream and bleach all over the place before making off with electronics, jewelry and sometimes food.


Michael Walker (right) is in prison for a 2007 home invasion in which the husband of Roberta Ramsey (left) was killed. Credits: File photos (first two), Photo provided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office

Walker pleaded no contest to two of the cases; the third was dropped. Two months before the Valentine's Day murder, Walker was caught by police selling liquid morphine — somehow stolen in a shipment to Sarasota Memorial Hospital — to a confidential informant.

Walker was in county jail facing a whole list of charges at the same time Bryant went to trial in March 2007.

Bryant was convicted after three days. Upon hearing the guilty verdict, Bryant hung his head and shook it in disgust.

"I really do think this was a miscarriage of justice," said Henry Lee, a veteran attorney who took Bryant's case. "I've never had one convicted where I really didn't think he did it, except Andre."

Word spread at the Manatee County Jail of Bryant's guilty verdict.

The day after the conviction, Walker told another inmate that Bryant was innocent and that he was the actual robber, according to a signed affidavit.

Three months later, Bryant was back in court to be sentenced. The state asked that he spend the rest of his life in prison. But because Bryant was so young, Circuit Judge Janette Dunnigan sentenced him to 30 years behind bars.

Bryant's family sat in the courtroom wearing T-shirts that said "No Fingerprints, No DNA, No Motive."

"I love you, bro," one relative shouted.

Bryant turned and said, "I love you, too."

The next day at the county jail, the inmate says Walker again confessed to the Walgreens robbery.

That inmate, Montilious Bing, was being held at the time on armed home invasion and sale of cocaine charges.

There is no known connection between Bing and Bryant.

Bing says he asked Walker why he would not come forward.

"He has his own problems and doesn't need anymore trouble," Bing wrote of the conversation.

Bing's affidavits — one signed and another unsigned — were collected by an attorney working on Bryant's behalf after he was sentenced.

They have not been filed in court. Prosecutors had not seen the documents until they were presented by the Herald-Tribune. Bing, serving 25 years in state prison, did not respond to letters or inquiries with his family about the possibility of an interview. He received nothing in exchange for the affidavits.

Bryant heard rumors in the jail that another inmate had confessed to the robbery. He was reading in his bunk when someone told him Walker was talking about his case.

So Bryant confronted him.

"I just told him like, 'Man, if you did that, step up to the plate,'" Bryant recalls. "He never told me he did it. He denied that to me. I don't know who did it.

"I wasn't there."

The man who prosecuted Bryant also heard the rumors, but doesn't recall the source and says he only heard about them after the trial.

"I remember somebody saying something about Walker making statements after the fact but nothing amounting to a confession," said Andrew Mikos, a former assistant state attorney.

Mikos is no longer a local prosecutor.

He was just 27 years old and in his third year at the State Attorney's Office when Bryant's case came across his desk. He had gotten a promotion and $3,000 raise a few months earlier.

He was fired a year later for his conduct during an unrelated case. In 2008, Mikos prosecuted two drug defendants and his brother took information about them from a confidential file kept at home.

Police say Mikos' brother, David, used this information to track down one of the defendants and offer him a deal: Pay him $1,000 and Andrew Mikos would drop criminal charges.

The plan blew up when police became involved.

Mikos said he had no idea what his brother had done and believed that he snooped through the files at his home.

Mikos was not criminally charged, but he was fired in February 2008 without the option to resign for violating the office's policy about confidential information. He is now a public defender in Oakland County, Michigan.

Mikos said he would have liked more physical evidence in the Walgreens case, but felt Bryant's actions and proximity to the crime scene were compelling.

"I'm convinced that after reviewing all of the testimony and reviewing all of the evidence ... that Andre Bryant is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt of committing this robbery," Mikos told jurors during his closing arguments.

A PRESSURED WITNESS

A young girl and her mother waited outside a courtroom in Manatee County.

A stranger in a gray suit walked by and took a seat.

The girl was then 11 years old.

Seven months earlier, she was in the backseat of a SUV and saw a robber stick a gun to her friend's head.

She was waiting to testify when her mother pointed at the man in the gray suit and asked:

Is that him?

Is that the guy who did it?

No, the girl said.

A few minutes later, the girl walked inside the courtroom, took a seat on the witness stand and pointed her finger at the man in the gray suit — telling prosecutors she was sure Bryant was the attacker.

The Herald-Tribune is using initials to identify the three young witnesses.

"I was young," T.R. says now. "I felt really pressured."

Seven years after the trial, T.R. now acknowledges that she picked Bryant even though she could not remember what the robber looked like, that she has always been roiled by guilt over the case and that she was told by others to pick Bryant out of a police lineup.

"I felt like I had to pick just because I was scared," T.R. said. "I felt like it was the right thing to do at the time."

The witnesses were always the key to solving this case.

With no fingerprints, grainy surveillance footage from before the crime and nothing forensic to work with, authorities had to rely on the four people who saw the armed man.

Three hours after the robbery, detectives showed Cline and her 14-year-old son a piece of paper with six black-and-white photographs on it.

Each picture was a black man with dreadlocks. Each had a dark complexion, even though the witnesses described the assailant as light-skinned with facial scars that looked like "dents."

Bryant was in slot number five.

Neither Cline nor her son picked him out, however. Cline reportedly told deputies she was 90 percent sure Bryant was the robber.

The next day, with Bryant already in police custody, the four witnesses returned to Sheriff's Office headquarters for a second lineup.

All of the pictures were different, and this time in color.

Bryant was the only man to appear in both packs; this time, his photo was a more recent mugshot.

E.C. and C.C., the children of police, are both white.

T.R., a family friend, is biracial.

E.C., then 11, went first. She chose the man in spot number one — Bryant.

C.C., the son, went next. He also chose Bryant.

Before T.R. went, she says both children spoke to her and told her they picked number one.

"I was questioning if I saw the right person because they both had the same number," T.R. says now. "They both thought it was him, but I didn't. Was I wrong?"

She picked number one anyway.

photo packs
Andre Bryant was the only person to appear in two photo packs. He is in the fifth spot in the first pack (left) and the first person in the second. Photos provided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff's officials dispute this account.

Dave Bristow, the sheriff's spokesman, says any conversations between the witnesses would have violated agency policy and normal procedures.

Criminal justice experts say cases that rely on eyewitness identifications are notoriously weak, as adrenaline and fear cloud victims' judgment. Time seems to slow down, recollections become blurry. White people are universally bad at identifying black people; blacks are just as bad picking out whites.

So a young girl pointing out her attacker in court may be persuasive to jurors, but experts say it is unreliable and among the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Where scientific evidence like DNA leads to convincing connections, witnesses are subject to forgetfulness, fear and outside pressure.

"Misidentification is at the root of many wrongful convictions," said Judith A.M. Scully, a law professor at Stetson University.

"In Andre Bryant's case, the children talked to each other about the identification. That can have a major impact on the child's perception of what they remembered. It becomes a false memory."

The young girl, T.R., has since moved away from Manatee County. She and her family live in a small home in Okeechobee. When reporters visited earlier this year, her father was heading off to work a night shift.

T.R. sat with her mother at a dinner table while a younger sister watched TV nearby. The girl was nervous. She alternates between wanting to help Bryant and wanting to forget.

Her mother has long questioned this case but doesn't pester; it was hard enough for T.R. to be the victim of a violent crime without her mother pecking at her, too.

After T.R. saw Bryant outside the courtroom and didn't know he was the robber, her mother began to wonder if the police narrative was true.

"I started questioning everything," the mother says. "If it really stuck in her head and she seen him, she would've been scared. She said he looked different than when it happened."

A DOUBTFUL JUROR

From the beginning, Bryant claimed his innocence and told his attorney he was not interested in any sort of plea deal. He wouldn't admit to something he didn't do.

The trial lasted three days. Each victim pointed Bryant out as the robber.

Bryant testified, which meant that prosecutors could introduce his criminal record to the jury. Normally, people can only be convicted with the facts of the current case. Because Bryant took the stand, however, his past became fair game.

Still, by the time jurors started deliberating, not everyone was convinced. Four believed he was guilty, two had doubts.

One of those with doubts spoke to the newspaper earlier this year. He asked to remain anonymous because of the high-profile nature of this case. The juror said he tried to bring up important questions:

Could people — children — really remember the face of a man who robbed them when it was dark and they were scared? Did the fact that the victims were related to a deputy lead to a less thorough investigation? Did Bryant run because he knew there was a warrant out for his arrest? Were jurors looking at just the armed robbery, or also weighing Bryant's past crimes?

Again and again, the questions were shot down.

"There were two or three people who dominated it and didn't want to hear what-ifs," said the man, the eldest juror. "They got so rude and nasty I guess they broke us. Basically, I still have my doubts."

Arthur Patterson, vice president for a national trial and jury consulting firm, DecisionQuest, says jury bullying is fairly common.

Attorneys cannot speak to jurors to find out what happened afterward and, while their identities become public record in Florida, many are reticent to talk about their thoughts.

"The majority has power over the minority because it's hard for one person or even two to hold out against the group," Patterson said.

Although a defendant's criminal history is not supposed to play a role in the verdict, Bryant's previous crimes could have prejudiced the jury.

"Most jurors really want to do the right thing," Patterson said. "They're looking for anything they can to help them reach the right decision. They know they're not getting the full story from the lawyers and witnesses. They're looking for every clue they can get to help them. One of the simplest clues is: 'Oh, he's committed a crime before so he's a criminal.'"

The jury foreman also spoke to the newspaper anonymously, due to the case's high-profile nature. He denies pressure in the deliberation room and still believes jurors got it right. The foreman says that he gave less credence to Bryant's witnesses because of their criminal histories.

The foreman said he was especially convinced by the fact that all three children chose Bryant from the lineup, adding that the deputy's children would be taught to remember the face of anyone who victimized them.

"We wouldn't have given the verdict we did if we didn't believe he was guilty," the foreman said. "To me, and all of us, it was pretty overwhelming."

A TROUBLED LIFE

Bryant says he will be good if he gets out, but c'mon.

Be real.

Trouble just seems to find guys like him.

Even behind bars, prison officials have written him up nine times for everything from disobeying orders to testing positive for marijuana.

Bryant vows to stay out of Manatee County for good because this place has been nothing but bad news.

He grew up in Kingston Estates, a neighborhood in east Bradenton. He attended Manatee High School before being sent to Gulf Coast Marine Institute for behavioral problems.

He dropped out when he was 16.

He had five brothers and three sisters. He would occasionally stay over at his father's house, though he was closer to his mother, who went to prison for vehicular homicide when he was 17.

After he was convicted of the Walgreens robbery, two of his brothers were shot to death by the same man.

In both of those cases, the shooter was not prosecuted because authorities say he was protecting himself under Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law.

Bryant does not have a violent criminal record.

He was accused in middle school of grabbing a girl's behind and started selling cocaine as a teenager. He wasn't necessarily a bad kid, but such is the life of a hustler: he wound up selling dope to an undercover officer and spent time in county jail.

Then he got out and got right back in the game.

He had two babies by two women and kept coke, weed, rifles and ammunition in the same small duplex he shared with toddlers. When the police had the duplex surrounded, Bryant tried to sneak some of his cash out in a diaper bag while his girlfriend and her children surrendered.

Prosecutors could have charged Bryant with a string of felonies after their search of the duplex in 2006.

He faced 15 years just for being a felon with a gun, and could have gotten more if the state pursued him on drug charges. As it was, prosecutors thought their robbery case rock-solid and dropped everything else.

So, no. Bryant isn't exactly innocent.

"I ain't going back there," Bryant said. "I think it's best if I stay away from there."

Andre's family
The family of Andre Bryant has been waiting seven years for prosecutors to reconsider his case. Photo by Brian Blanco

AWAITING JUSTICE

Bryant is skinnier than he used to be. After falling ill in prison, physicians diagnosed him as a diabetic. He swapped out Honey Buns from the commissary in favor of the diet tray.

His dreadlocks are gone, his hair buzzed short.

Tattoos have faded into the dark skin of his forearms.

He wears a navy shirt and matching pants, with rubber sandals on his feet when the Herald-Tribune visits.

A photo ID with his Department of Corrections number is clipped to his shirt. He sits in the visitation room at Graceville Correctional Facility, leaning over a plastic table. Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh murals are painted on the walls by vending machines.

A guard eats his lunch in the corner.

"It's prison," Bryant says, glancing around the room. "You know you ain't going to like it, especially when you in here for something you ain't do. I hate it, but you know I gotta do what I gotta do to get back out. I ain't going to let it break me. I'm going to stay strong."


Bryant spends his days playing basketball. He is working on his GED. He signed up for a life skills course, but it got canceled. He's on the waiting list for a barber class.

He thinks about his two children — Andre Jr. and Andrea, both 8 — who met one another for the first time in February.

"I love it," Bryant said. "I just don't like the fact that it took all the way up until that time for them to see each other. They told me that they barely talked."

Andrea has visited her father in prison three times.

The child hesitates when she sees him.

"She knows that's her Daddy and she wanted to see him but then it was awkward," said Chianti Josey, Bryant's sister. "She would talk to him but was more comfortable from a distance."

Andre Jr. was a baby when his father was arrested.

They talk sometimes on the telephone.

Each year for his birthday and Christmas, little Andre asks for his dad.

"He understands his father is in prison and we're going to get him out, but it's hard," said Covoya Nelson, Andre Jr.'s mother. "It's only Mommy. Mommy can only go so far. He's always asking about Daddy, Daddy, Daddy."

Andre and daughter
Andre Bryant visits with his daughter, Andrea, at Graceville Correctional Facility. Photo provided

Zina Johnson has a photograph of Bryant sitting in her living room. Each day she looks at it and says a prayer. Sometimes she wakes up at night thinking about her son in prison, whom she hasn’t seen in more than a decade. Sometimes she breaks down with anger and frustration.

“I have no faith in the justice system. My faith is in God,” Johnson said. “I keep my faith in Him because I know there’s a blessing around the corner and that blessing is to see Andre come home. That’s the day I wait for, to hear that my child is released. And then I can sleep at night.”


Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice