Sunday, September 2, 2018
Perhaps you read the story of inmate John Brown who has spent 26 of his 51 years in an Arkansas prison for a crime he apparently never committed.
U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson ruled Brown was wrongly convicted of raping, robbing and murdering a 78-year-old Fordyce woman.
His honor said Brown must be either released or charged again within a month. The present 13th Judicial Circuit prosecutor, who represents Dallas County, said he was still mulling whether to refile charges.
From what I read in reporter Linda Satter's news story on this travesty, I agree with the judge and the Midwest Innocence Project (thanks for them), who spelled out just how flawed and flimsy--better make that virtually nonexistent--evidence against this man was when the Dallas County jury convicted him.
As with so many convict-the-innocent boondoggles within our criminal justice system, Brown went to prison based on a recanted false confession, as well as alleged bias among those investigating. Another man confessed in 2015 to committing the crime by himself.
This story struck close to home because I've experienced (up close and personal) these kinds of unacceptable, jumping-to-conclusions, fact-avoiding and corrupt injustices multiple times over my career.
Thank goodness for the good folks at the Innocence Project, which also has taken the similar case of Belynda Goff of Green Forest, who after more than two decades continues to serve life without parole for the murder of her husband, which I remain deeply convinced she did not do.
As with Brown, Goff's case is filled with initial police biases that locked them into a contorted scenario that made no sense, dozens of discrepancies, no hard evidence or murder weapon, and even vital DNA evidence that inexplicably disappeared after a sheriff's deputy signed it out at the state Crime Laboratory in Little Rock to return to his department.
The mess of her conviction smells to high heaven and is unacceptable for me and many others. Those responsible for administering truth and justice usually are the last ones to admit it when they err. After all, there's that career and personal face-saving stigma to deal with, ya know.
Yet she remains behind bars in Newport after more than two decades, helping fellow female inmates cope while still praying for justice.
I can't imagine much worse than being innocent of a murder a jury insists you committed, then sentenced to life. I said upfront how familiar I became with incarcerated innocents earlier in my career and being led to evidence that resulted in their freedom. I've previously written about some of the cases.
There was Shelby Barron, the innocent African American father of two from Hot Springs who a Houston, Texas, grand jury indicted for rape and robbery, but who had not been in Houston and didn't even have a driver's license.
Six weeks of digging and continually shedding light on his wrongful incarceration led to a judge initially freeing the stonemason from a Hot Springs cell awaiting extradition and after seven weeks prompting a stubborn Houston district attorney to drop those charges.
Some will recall the infamous James Dean Walker case from the early 1980s in which Walker, of Reno, Nev., was convicted of murdering a North Little Rock patrolman on a highway near town.
Walker came within six days of the electric chair in the 1960s before being granted a second trial where he again was convicted but got life rather than a death sentence.
The deeper I looked into his case nearly 20 years later, the more discrepancies and outright falsehoods turned up. You know it's a bad deal when the single fatal bullet taken from the slain officer went to the Crime Lab for ballistic testing, yet two different officers testified they returned that slug to the evidence locker.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals took a hard look at Walker's conviction and granted him a third trial. That trial never happened and Walker was freed.
Then in the 1980s, I happened across the case of Ronald Carden of Bigelow. He was a man wrongly convicted of murdering a "Jane Doe" whose decomposing remains were discovered just outside Little Rock.
A circuit judge freed Carden after weeks of stories that revealed clear evidence of his innocence. A single questionable hair used by a Crime Lab technician as the only hard evidence against Carden was shot down by the FBI Crime Lab.
Some readers may recall the system's gross injustices in the 1960s murder of Marvin Williams of Menifee, a black man who died in the custody of the Faulkner County sheriff.
A year of reporting contradictions and deceptions during the 1980s showed Williams' death had not been from an accidental fall forward on the courthouse steps as claimed by two Conway patrolmen, but from his skull being fractured from top to bottom behind his ear.
A grand jury indicted those men for murder 20 years later. They were acquitted at trial.
Sorry to report there are other instances of Arkansas' supposedly blind Lady Justice peeking, apparently now to include Mr. John Brown.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 09/02/2018
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