By: Dr. Jerry Bergman
In 1986 I received a call from the state of Texas asking me if I could provide insight in a murder case.
After the details of the case were described, I felt I could be helpful. My experience includes working in the field of corrections and publishing widely in corrections.
From my experience consulting in over a hundred court cases, including a number of murder and rape cases, the Texas murder case sent to me appeared a clear-cut.
The more I learned about it, though, the more I realized it was a very unusual case.
The state claimed in 1985, after James Allridge III robbed a store of $300, he realized the clerk could recognize him because they had taken a management training course together.
Goaded on by his older brother, he shot 21-year-old Brian Clendennen who was then working in the Fort Worth, Texas, convenience store. Brian died the next day.
James was convicted, and his case was on appeal when I received the call from Texas. His court-appointed attorney sent me the complex record of the investigation and the two-thousand-page trial transcript. I also have now corresponded extensively with James.
He had no previous criminal record, was an excellent student, but fell under the control and demands of an older, violent paranoid schizophrenic brother.
James maintained a 4.0 GPA in the college courses he pursued while on death row and his top-notch art-work was exhibited in several locations including colleges.
I also have a shoe box of his letters proving art was not his only talent.
After I had prepared to testify in James’ re-trial, his attorney was appointed a judge, and James’ case was assigned to another attorney who had to start over.
I informed his new attorney the details of the case, which I had to repeat each time James was appointed a new attorney for similar reasons.
As is his right, he never got his day in court beyond the first trial, nor did I have a chance to present my exculpatory findings. Nor did the witnesses who were to testify at his re-trial.
The case received a lot of publicity. Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon even made a special trip to death row to visit Allridge.
After her two-hour visit with him she released this written statement: “My heart and prayers go out to the Clendennen family.
They have suffered a terrible loss, one that I would not presume to know. I hope they have found a way towards healing from the senseless murder of Brian.
My friendship with James Allridge in no way diminishes my feelings of sympathy for the Clendennen family. It merely reflects the fact that James Allridge is a human being and he is much more than the worst act that he has ever committed.”
A Swedish human life group also supported him for much of the time he was on death row. They felt his case was a strong argument for reforming the death penalty.
Everyone who knew him, including the warden, and many that didn’t know him, supported converting his death sentence to life in prison.
After over 17 years he was a very different man, no longer the young naïve kid who worshipped his mentally ill older brother.
I support the death penalty, but this case has given me and others second thoughts.
Instead of execution, I recommended the very well-spoken, articulate James to be put in handcuffs and leg chains for show, and be allowed to speak in schools to young people as an example about where crime leads.
I had no doubt that he would make a lasting impression on many young students as he did with me and many others.
Allridge’s nearly two decades on death row was sharply beneficial to the many persons he helped. His talk would go something like this:
“I have no excuse for what I have done. I took the life of another human being and deserve to die. I did a horrible thing due to social pressure.”
“All of you will be exposed to temptations at one time in your life as I was. Do not succumb as I did, but flee from any situation that could leave someone killed.”
“Do you know what it is like, every day of your life, facing execution by lethal injection? I have suffered much more that the person I killed.”
“Each day my thought is, if I only had refused to go with my brother that day….? I had a good home.”
“My father was a career military man. I would have had a good life except for the one mistake I made.”
“My professional advice was ignored. He was on death row for almost two decades. Another two decades would allow him to continue doing more good in the world.”
“If his presentations to high school students saved only one life, it would have been an equitable tradeoff.
In his final statement before he was executed, speaking slowly and deliberately, Allridge said “I’m sorry, I really am. Thank you for forgiving me. I leave you all as I came – in love.”
Lastly, he asked for forgiveness and expressed his faith and the comfort he was given from his renewed Christian faith during this very difficult time.
After knowing him for 17 years, I have no doubt that he was sincere.
On August 26, 2004, at 06:22 p.m., the 41-year-old Black man was executed by lethal injection. Several veteran witnesses of past executions remarked that he went to his death with a calmness and peacefulness that they had rarely ever seen before.
His 4th court-appointed attorney, on his last call to me, said with some anger, “They fried another one without due process.” ‘
He never did have a retrial as was his right, and I never testified in his behalf. I know he will be greatly missed.
One of the many pictures he sent me.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,800 publications in 12 languages and 60 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries.