Brandon Woodruff (Photo courtesy Scott Poggensee)
Both a book and a documentary take a closer look at the prosecution of a Texas gay man who says homophobia played a role in his conviction
Handsome twink Brandon Woodruff shed his country skin at 18, joining the private gay party circuit, dancing late nights in a flashy Oak Lawn disco and flying to Florida to star in pornographic movies under the name Bradley Rivers after a studio scout spotted him shirtless on the dance floor.
The gaiety seemed illimitable, but it all came to a tragic halt after only a year when he was charged in connection with the 2005 double murders of his parents in Royse City and a jury later convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison.
He is now serving that sentence in the Hughes Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections in Gatesville.
Woodruff — who has claimed his innocence all along— never emerged from behind bars, except for court appearances, after his arrest. Unable to make the $1 million bond, he went from jail to prison. He recently answered questions submitted to him by a Jpay.com email in a telephone recording after spending 13 years behind bars.
Now, Woodruff is again proclaiming his innocence and asking for help following the recent publication of a book about his case that alleges an unjust, homophobic investigation, prosecution and conviction. There is also a documentary about the case that will screen in Dallas this month.
Woodruff, now 31, hopes the book and the documentary will gain him public support and a review of his case that will lead to freedom.
Woodruff said that at the time of the trial he always believed he would ultimately be acquitted of the murders, and that his conviction devastated him. He said that he loved his parents, that he never had serious problems with them and that he could never harm anyone, let alone the two people he loved the most.
His reaction, he said was “undescribable.” In fact, he was so sure he would be acquitted, he and his grandmother had made plans to go out for a celebratory dinner after the trial, in anticipation of him leaving court and regaining his freedom after three years in jail.
“I was shocked,” Woodruff said. “I was confused. I was angry. I was scared. I was sad.
“It was like a tidal wave of emotions going through my entire system. I specifically remember standing there, trying to stand tall and firm with what I knew was the truth: I did not kill my parents,” he recalled. “But yet there are 12 people over there that just said they believe I did it. It was a gut-wrenching moment. Later, I threw up all my lunch in the jail cell. It was disbelief, but at the same time it was coming together like one big nightmare. I really wanted to talk to the jury. It was horrible.”
Woodruff said his life changed overnight, catapulting him into a bizarre, terrifying environment where he was exposed to types of people he never before encountered.
“I kind of got plucked out of reality as a normal person would know it and put in this whole other world,” he said. “I had to grow up really fast.
“At first it was really terrifying. I was afraid of my own shadow. I had never had any serious fights growing up, and so just being put in this environment was really nerve-wracking for a while,” he said. “I’ve kind of relaxed a little, but you can never relax completely, because you are constantly having to watch your surroundings. I’ve never been severely beaten up or raped, so I feel like maybe my mom and dad are still watching over me.”
Woodruff said that despite the trauma of losing his parents, being arrested, confined in jail for three years before the trial and then being convicted and sent to prison, he has never lost hope that he will one day be exonerated of guilt in the hideous stabbing and shooting deaths of his parents.
“I can easily say I’ve never lost hope,” Woodruff said. “There’s a line in a book I read once that said, you can put a bird in a cage but you can’t stop it from singing. I won’t ever stop saying I’m innocent. I won’t ever stop fighting for the truth. I won’t just sit around and wait for other people to help me. I’m going to talk to as many people as I can to get the story out there.
“I think the more people learn about my case and go digging they will see I’m innocent. And they will see what that town did,” he said. “I think the more exposure we get on it that they will eventually have to do the right thing. I do believe justice will eventually prevail. Right now, there’s been no justice for my mom and dad. There’s people walking around out there that really committed the crime.”
The book, the documentary Woodruff’s story is the plot of Railroaded: The Homophobic Prosecution of Brandon Woodruff for His Parents’ Murders, a new book authored by retired lawyer Phillip Crawford Jr., and of Texas Justice: Brandon Woodruff, a documentary under production by Scott Poggensee. The filmmaker has also established Free Brandon.org, a website devoted to restoring the freedom of the former Abilene Christian University freshman and weekend party boy.
Crawford, a former New York litigator who now lives in Florida, and Poggensee, an emergency medical technician and novice filmmaker who lives in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, are convinced that Woodruff, now 31, is innocent of the brutal murders of his parents in their home in Royse City in October 2005. They contend the investigation of the bloody murders of
Dennis and Norma Woodruff — who died from multiple gunshot and stab wounds — and the prosecution and conviction of their son in March 2009 in homophobic Greenville reflected an anti-gay bias.
In their view, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, the judge and the jury all allowed their religious convictions to overrule their reason, resulting in an innocent youth being incarcerated while the real killer — or killers — escaped punishment.
The prosecution theorized that Woodruff killed his parents after they confronted their son about him being gay, his failing grades in college and his fledgling porn career. The prosecutors also said Woodruff had motive in the form of a life insurance policy his parents owned that named him as a beneficiary, which would have let him continue his party life without interference.
Woodruff’s supporters have countered that prosecutors presented no evidence to show any conflict ever existed between parents and son.
Crawford, who is also the author of The Mafia and the Gays published in 2015, said he became aware of Woodruff’s case in April 2017 when he was browsing profiles on the Write a Prisoner website after reading about the program in a news story. He came across Woodruff’s profile and decided to research the case.
After reviewing the briefs of the case and the news coverage of the trial, Crawford haddoubts about Woodruff’s guilt. He viewed the evidence against Woodruff as flimsy, and he noted the prisoner had passed two polygraph tests.
“The case bothered me to my core,” Crawford said. “The risk that Brandon Woodruff was convicted based on the prejudicial effect of the homophobic narrative employed by state prosecutors was amplified, in my opinion, due to the weak evidence against him. Something just did not seem right about his conviction; none of it made sense to me.”
The prosecution of Woodruff raised ethical questions early on, before the trial even started. Woodruff’s lawyers discovered prosecutors had eavesdropped on their telephone conversations with the defendant in the Hunt County Detention Center where he sat, unable to make a $1 million bond. The presiding judge ruled prosecutors had violated Woodruff’s 6th Amendment right to counsel, and he ordered the Hunt County District Attorney to recuse himself so the Texas Attorney General could take charge.
In May 2017 Crawford wrote to Woodruff expressing his interest in writing a book, and the prisoner quickly responded with answers to the questions posed by the author. Soon, Poggensee also reached out to Crawford, offering to share information he had acquired while working on the documentary.
They joined forces in a combined effort to raise awareness about Woodruff’s case.
“The principal motivation was that I believe Brandon Woodruff has been wronged by the so-called criminal justice system — railroaded, if you will — and the deeper I got into the case the more outraged I became at the cumulative injustices against him, from arrest through trial, and conviction through appeals,” Crawford said. “The main focus for me was the homophobic narrative by state prosecutors against him in which a young gay boy’s coming out process was treated as some sinister double-life, essentially evoking The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
Woodruff said he was shocked early on to realize that investigators and prosecutors began focusing on his sexual orientation as a major factor in his case.
“The state wanted to argue…that people that because I didn’t tell certain people I was gay, that if I could lie about being gay I could lie about being a murderer, and that’s just not the case,” Woodruff said. “I was coming to find myself, and I didn’t feel like I needed to go around telling every single person what Brandon was doing in his private life. I do know the state was telling people they had evidence. But when asked what it was, the state said, ‘We can’t tell you, but just trust us.’ The main central issue was if I could lie about being gay I could lie about being a murderer. That’s just not true.”
Poggensee said he first became aware of Woodruff’s case in 2005 immediately after Woodruff was arrested. He was at dinner with two friends when Woodruff’s mug shot flashed on the television screen in the restaurant. One of the friends said, “Oh, my God. That’s my ex-boyfriend.”
The filmmaker-to-be immediately became intrigued by the case.
“I had no idea who Brandon was at that point, however his mug shot did not look like someone that could commit such a cold-blooded double homicide,” Poggensee said. “I realize you can’t spot a murderer, but he just looked too innocent to do something like that.”
Poggensee followed the case through its climax more than three years after Woodruff’s arrest. After the conviction, Poggensee wrote to Woodruff in prison, and the prisoner finally wrote back to him a year later. They became penpals, and Poggensee visited Woodruff in prison a couple of years later.
The filmmaker said he obtained all of the public court records from the trial, and he studied the massive paperwork to get the “true picture.”
“In about May 2017 I finally just told him, ‘Brandon, if you want people to know about your case, you’re going to have to make some kind of movie or something about it.’ I didn’t think we could expect anyone to sift through tens of thousands of pages of documents, but I didn’t have any problem asking someone to sit through an hour-long documentary.
“It was from there I thought to myself, I have a camera, and I have a computer. I can make the documentary. Little did I know what a massive project I was taking on,” Poggensee said.
Poggensee said his motivation is stoked by outrage that the criminal justice system can so miserably fail citizens, and that the public is so blind to what occurs. News coverage of Woodruff’s arrest and trial focused solely on the information fed to the media by the prosecution, he said.
“At some point I think that we as a nation need to stand up and say enough is enough,” Poggensee said. “We need to not only fight for the falsely convicted but to fight to make sure this type of thing doesn’t happen in the first place. Brandon’s situation could have been very well avoided if just one investigator or one assistant district attorney had stood up and said, ‘You know what? Maybe we don’t have the right person. Maybe there truly isn’t enough evidence to say this guy did it for sure. Maybe we need to take a second look at it.’
“No one ever did that. Once they arrested Brandon, it became let’s prove Brandon did it.”
Crawford’s book, portrayed the investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the prosecution by the Texas Attorney General’s Office as biased by homophobia, and the prosecution did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But Tom Vinger of the Media and Communications Office for the Texas Rangers provided a statement by email: “Law enforcement professionals from the local, state and federal level participated in this investigation. The investigative findings were presented to a Hunt County grand jury, which indicted Brandon Woodruff for the murder of his parents. A trial jury weighed the views of both parties, as well as the evidence presented, and ultimately found Woodruff guilty of the murders – and the appellate courts upheld that verdict. As in all cases, the
Texas Rangers defer to the decision of the jury — and appellate courts.
“In all cases, as with this one, the Texas Rangers are committed to conducting thorough and impartial investigations. This includes gathering the facts and evidence, which are then turned over to the appropriate criminal justice officials, who determine the next steps in each case.”
Woodruff said that he is grateful to Crawford and Poggensee for their efforts to raise public awareness about his case. Except for one item in the Dallas Voice after his conviction, the allegations of homophobia in the case went unnoticed and unreported by the media, he said.
“It means the world to me, and it actually means a lot more than that,” Woodruff said. “I think they will help me get the story out. I’ve been extremely thankful for their time, dedication and energy. In a way, I feel really inadequate because they are doing everything for me, and I can’t go out and get a job to help cover the expenses. I can never thank them enough. Time is very precious on earth, and they are spending it for me.”
Poggensee said there is speculation about who might have killed Woodruff’s parents, but that information cannot be revealed yet. “We’re not ready,” he said.
Both Crawford and Poggensee said they hope the book and the documentary will lead to an outcry from the public that will influence an investigation and review of Woodruff’s conviction by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A three-judge panel from the 6th District Court of Criminal Appeals in Texarkana expressed concerns about the legitimacy of weapons produced as evidence in the trial, but it upheld the verdict in 2010.
Poggensee has spent $30,000 on the documentary project in addition to his time. He took a class on filmmaking at the Lone Star Film Festival, and he participated in a webinar on film marketing in anticipation of distributing the documentary. He would like to see it screened at a film festival to garner professional interest and support.
He notes that he reached out to everyone involved in the investigation and prosecution of Woodruff, and that none of them would participate in the documentary.
Crawford’s book also has attracted some attention since its release in May of this year. One of Woodruff’s defense lawyers, Katherine Ferguson, read it and left a review.
“I am the attorney who tried the case for Brandon,” she wrote. “Mr. Crawford has done an excellent job of setting forth facts — not speculation or prejudice — that show Brandon Woodruff is innocent.”
SCREENING: Texas Justice: Brandon Woodruff
Scott Poggensee will hold a “Work In Progress” screening of his documentary, Texas Justice: Brandon Woodruff, about a Texas gay man who says he was wrongfully convicted for the 2005 murder of his parents, from 6-10 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24, at Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson St. in Dallas.
Poggensee said the documentary will be a three-part series. Part 1, “No Justice,” focuses on what happened to Brandon Woodruff from 2005 to 2018. Part 2, “The Fight,” focuses on what is happening now in the efforts to win his release. And Part 3, “Freedom Delayed,” focuses on what Brandon hopes to do with his life if and when he is released.
Admission to the screening is free. Poggensee said he hopes to have as many people as possible attend to provide feedback on the documentary so far.
For more information on the case and Poggensee’s documentary, visit FreeBrandon.org. To see a trailer for the documentary, visit FreeBrandon.org/trailer.
Poggensee will also be a guest on Lambda Weekly Radio Program, from 1-2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, on KNON 89.3 FM.