In this Saturday, May 5, 2012 photo, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. For five decades, Preservation Hall has served up New Orleans jazz for music lovers the world over. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on its closing weekend, marked that achievement by showcasing the world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band in concert twice. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Gerald Herbert)
But everything changed on Aug. 18, 1996. Susan Spencer reports on a family struggling with an enormous burden.
That August afternoon, Bryan and her mother, 82-year-old Freda Weeks, went out for a drive in the Georgia countryside. "We just went riding around for a little bit, just reminiscing, which we've done for years," Bryan says.
Bryan, a mother of two, says she became momentarily distracted and lost control of the car. When her car finally stopped, it was at the bottom of an 18-foot embankment. At that point her mother was unresponsive, Bryan says. She couldn't turn the car off, she also says.
She got out but couldn't reach her mother: The doors had somehow locked, Bryan says. She climbed the embankment, looked back and saw smoke. Coincidentally, her cousin, Danny Weeks, was driving down the road. She flagged him down. He jumped out and sent his wife to call the fire department. He ran and got a bucket of water, but by then the fire was out of control.
Shortly after the crash the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began investigating. Although the medical examiner said Freda Weeks had probably died of heart failure, possibly before the fire began, the bureau considered the case suspicious.
"No damage to the vehicle, no personal items in the car, the gas cap of the car was missing and the fuel door was open," says Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent John Heinen, citing aspects of the crash scene that made him suspicious.
More incriminating, though, was the report from the state fire investigators. After sifting through the remains of Bryan's car, they concluded that the fire had been deliberately set.
On Dec. 18, 1997, Georgia indicted Bryan for arson and murder and argued that she purposely drove the car down the embankment and then set it on fire. Why? According to prosecutors, she wanted to collect on the auto liability insurance.
Bryan's case went to trial on Aug. 28, 1998. The state's experts testified that the fire was deliberately set, with an accelerant, even though the lab results showed no evidence of any.
The trial lasted a week. After deliberating for eight hours, the jury found Bryan guilty. She was sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison.
"I just went numb," remembers Karlas Bryan, a house painter married to the accused woman for 28 years. "I had resigned to the fact that our life would be four or five hours together once a week at the prison."
"You think because you're innocent that things won't go wrong," Sheila Bryan says. "You're mistaken."
A few days after the sentence, Sheila Bryan went to jail and was soon transferred to Pulaski State Prison. Her lawyer appealed the case.
In June, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Sheila Bryan's conviction, saying the state had misled the jury and erroneously implied that she had a lot to gain from her mother's death. A few weeks later, Sheila Bryan was freed after serving 319 days in prison.
When she walked out of prison, family and friends were there to greet her. It was an emotional reunion. Said Bryan: "I think your richness is measured by the friends that you have, and I feel pretty wealthy."
But Sheila Bryan's troubles weren't over. Still convinced she had killed her mother, Georga authorities decided to retry her on murder charges. Find out what happens.
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