April 27, 2002, 12:37AM
'It's like a double insult'
Free from prison, Brandley baffled by order to pay back child supportBy HARVEY RICE
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
CONROE -- A state district judge and a Texas appeals court determined more than a decade ago that Clarence Brandley was unjustly convicted in the slaying of a 16-year-old girl at Conroe High School.
His conviction was overturned, sparing him from the executioner's chamber.
A TV movie last weekend, based on the book White Lies, portrayed Montgomery County judges, prosecutors and police as conspiring to convict Brandley despite evidence pointing to two other men.
Brandley, 51, who now lives in Houston, believes he is still being punished in the form of money that is being deducted from his weekly paycheck and sent to Harris County Child Support.
He is being forced to pay $25,640 in child support that the state says he was responsible for during his nine years in prison.
Although his son and daughter are now adults, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, where Brandley works as a tow truck driver, began taking a $34.62 garnishment from his weekly paycheck in 1997 and will do so until 2007, a Metro spokeswoman said.
"It's like a double insult," said Brandley, who reasons that the state is responsible for his arrears because it wrongfully put him on death row for nine years.
"It's not something that was brought about by my own doing."
Brandley has hired state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, as his attorney to help him challenge the payments.
"I think the state owes Clarence an apology and, secondly, the state owes money for all the things done to him for which he wasn't paid one dime," Dutton said.
Dutton said the Attorney General's Office assured him 10 years ago that Brandley would not be required to pay child support. He said he learned only recently that, despite the assurances, Brandley had been paying since 1993.
Janece Keetch, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office child support division, said her office was only following the law in pursuing the payments.
"The obligation for child support does not go away," she said.
Keetch and The American Coalition of Fathers and Children, which promotes fathers' rights, said that child support payments commonly pile up for prisoners in Texas and most other states.
While acknowledging that the Brandley case has "special circumstances," Keetch said being in prison does not shelter someone from child support. She said Brandley could have petitioned the court to reduce his payments while he was in prison.
Brandley said he wasn't aware that he could have done that.
"Nobody knows about that," Dutton said. "The only time you learn about it is when you get out of prison and are confronted with a motion for contempt."
Keetch also said that Brandley, who had an attorney, agreed in 1993 to make the payments, which included money owed before and after his prison stay.
A 1977 divorce decree ordered him to pay $190 per month. Brandley said his payments were current when he was arrested in 1980.
Marc Murr, the attorney who helped Brandley contest the payments in 1993, told the Chronicle then that the state began new action to collect the money shortly after Brandley filed a $120 million civil rights lawsuit against an array of state agencies.
Murr could not be reached for comment for this story, but said then, "I'm not going to accuse them of (retaliating), but it all appears to be a very unfortunate coincidence."
But Keetch said records show that the Attorney General's Office acted only after a relative or custodian of the children filed a complaint seeking child support.
A judge later dismissed the lawsuit, saying the agencies had sovereign immunity.
Dianna Thompson, executive director of The American Coalition of Fathers and Children, said federal law prohibits child support from being forgiven in any circumstance.
David Simpson, director of the Harris County Domestic Relations Office, said the state assumes that the parent who is imprisoned must reimburse the other parent for the money that otherwise would have been paid in child support.
The amount due after release from prison, with 6 percent interest, "is the amount to right a wrong," Simpson said, noting that the interest rate recently was reduced from 12 percent.
Thompson countered that the law is based on ability to pay, and that prisoners have no income.
She said a bill pending in the California legislature recognizes the problem and would provide prisoners serving more than 90 days in jail the information to reduce child support payments.
Brandley was convicted in 1981 of the Aug. 23, 1980, rape-strangulation of Cheryl Dee Fergeson, 16, of Bellville.
Fergeson's volleyball team was visiting Conroe High School for a weekend tournament. Her body was found in an auditorium loft.
Brandley, a school janitor, said he was sitting alone in the school office at the time of the slaying.
Defense attorneys convinced a judge in a 1987 evidentiary hearing that he had not received a fair trial.
State District Judge Perry Picket said in his ruling that in his 30 years as a judge, "no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation (and) an investigation the outcome of which was predetermined."
Picket said that another janitor and a former janitor who had dropped by the school to visit were the likely suspects. Both are white.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Picket in 1990, ruling that Brandley's 1981 trial "lacked the rudiments" of fairness.
A 1991 book titled White Lies, by British author Nick Davies, portrayed Brandley as the victim of racist officials who were under community pressure to solve the crime quickly with little regard for guilt or innocence.
A movie based on the book and made for the Showtime cable channel premiered Sunday.
Brandley's prosecutors were unconvinced by Picket, the appeals court, the book or the movie.
Former Montgomery County District Attorney Peter Speers, now in private practice in Austin, said White Lies best described the book's contents.
He added that he did not -- and would not -- see the movie.
In 1990, Speers said Picket was biased and the appeals court had made its decision for political reasons.
The two janitors implicated during the evidentiary hearing have never been prosecuted.
Mike DeGeurin, the Houston attorney who represented Brandley at the evidentiary and appeals hearings, said the state can never prosecute the other two men because they were key witnesses in its case against Brandley.
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle