A Victim of Justice: Danny Brown's Fight to Reclaim his Name and Life
Issue #71, December 2004
Danny Brown stands next to my police-like Crown Victoria as we survey an apartment building in the Toledo's Birmingham Terrace, which is not one of the East Side's tonier residential complexes. Circling teens on bikes and noses pressed against the apartment windows speak of a curious neighborhood. The irony of being mistaken for an undercover officer is not lost upon him.
"I'll bet they have us pegged as narcs," he laughs, crushing a cigarette butt under his shoe. Little do they know that Danny is a man who spent 19 years in state prisons, convicted of a horrible crime.
The faces in the panes continue to peer out, wondering what these strangers are doing in their neighborhood.
In December 1981, Ronald Reagan was finishing his first year in office. Joe Montana was emerging as a star in his third season with the San Francisco 49ers, en route to a victory in Super Bowl XVI. The top pop single of the month was "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John, and moviegoers turned out en masse to view Stephen Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
In December 1981, a woman named Bobbie Russell was raped and murdered in the Birmingham Terrace apartments. In the late evening hours of a frigid night, after her children were put to bed, an assailant (or perhaps, assailants) entered her home, raped, and strangled her with an electrical cord pulled from the newly-decorated Christmas tree that stood silent sentry over the brutal events in Bobbie Russell's living room.
And also in December 1981, Danny Brown was arrested and charged with this hideous offense.
Mr. Brown was tried and convicted by a jury of his peers, and sentenced to a term of 15 years to life. A gruesome crime had been committed, the public demanded justice, and the system delivered a guilty verdict. Another open-and-shut case drew to a close, having wound its way through the criminal justice system like a custom-ordered Jeep from the assembly line.
In the automobile business, however, vehicles are occasionally produced with serious flaws; in common parlance, such a car is a "lemon." While an inconvenience to the consumer, remedies are available to address the problems.
In Danny Brown's criminal case, there was also a significant problem: he was convicted for a crime that he didn't commit. The justice system in Lucas County, Ohio manufactured a lemon. Unfortunately for Danny, there are few legal procedures to mend his shattered life, and the roads to rebuilding his life are strewn with state-imposed barriers and outright government interference.
The Production of a Judicial Lemon
Danny Brown awoke on the morning of December 6, 1981 and looked outside the window of the house of a high school friend; the party from the night before had ended rather late, and Danny chose to spend the night rather than walk back to his parents' house on Detroit Avenue. The frost on the windowpane sparkled in the morning light, creating a sense of peaceful tranquility that would stand in stark contrast with the shocking scene across the Maumee River at the apartment of Bobbie Russell. The yellow police line tape restricted access to the place where the young woman's brutalized body had been covered by a starched white sheet.
Bobbie and Danny knew each other and had dated a few times in the months preceding her murder. Thus, word of her death on the noon news saddened Danny, and he, like the rest of the public, was outraged at the savage killing.
As an acquaintance of Bobbie's, Danny was not surprised that the police would want to talk with him. He went to the police station on his own, and waived his right to an attorney during questioning; he felt that he had nothing to hide, and wanted to help the police in any way that he could. However, it was clear early in the investigation that the detectives had a very short list of one suspect in the murder of Bobbie Russell: Danny Brown.
Although lacking physical evidence tying Danny to the crimes, and faced with over twenty possible alibi witnesses able to testify on Danny's behalf, the prosecution built a case upon the testimony of Bobbie Russell's six year-old son, Jeffrey. While his version of the events of December 5, 1981 were riddled with inconsistencies, factual impossibilities, and outright fabrications, it was Jeffrey's insistence that "Danny did it" that led to the conviction of Danny Brown.
Jeffrey changed his story several times during the investigation and trial. For example, the number of assailants began at one in the initial interview, went to two men during the investigation, and reverted back to one man during the trial.
In his testimony, Jeffrey described events that could not have been witnessed from his location. For example, at a point where he was supposedly hiding under a bed, he described in great detail how the killer attempted to strangle his three year-old sister with a coat hanger. He also described seeing Danny kicking at an outside door; unfortunately, a concrete awning covered this door, and anyone kicking the door could not be visible to someone on the second story.
A national debate over the reliability of child witnesses is occurring in the legal world. The suggestibility of and ease with which young children can be "coached" has created an environment where children are often perceived as unreliable in their testimony. In New Jersey v. Michaels (1994), the court ruled that "the questioning of the children was so suggestive and coercive that they were rendered incompetent to testify." In another case, Hawaii v. McKellar (1985), the judge discounted the testimony of small children, arguing that their responses were the result of "layers and layers of interviews, questions, examinations, etc., which were fraught with textbook examples of poor interview techniques."
It is possible that Jeffrey, in his zeal to help the police catch his mother's killer, unknowingly helped convict an innocent man. The possibility also exists that the interrogative techniques used by detectives may have improperly influenced Jeffrey's recollection of the events.
There were numerous attempts by the prosecutors to secure a plea bargain from Danny Brown; the complete lack of physical evidence and shaky testimony of the sole witness must have seemed to be a weak case. At one point, Danny was offered a sentence of one to ten years at Mansfield Reformatory in exchange for a plea of involuntary manslaughter while in the commission of a misdemeanor; with time served, Danny could have been out of prison in one year. However, Danny Brown knew he was innocent, believed in the ultimate power of truth, and wanted to go to trial to clear his name.
The guilty verdict rendered by the jury on September 24, 1982 shocked Mr. Brown; how could a man be sent to prison for a crime that he did not commit? Brown says: "I stood there, dumbfounded. I could not believe that the system could fail so miserably."
This question has no easy answer. However, two important factors were in the favor of Lucas County prosecutors: Danny Brown was poor, and Danny Brown was black. In America, these two attributes will bring about a different source of justice than that received by more affluent white defendants. Figures from the U.S. Department of Justice illustrate this point: African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate 5 times higher than whites, and an estimated 32% of all black males will enter state or federal prison in their lifetimes.
Danny did time in some of Ohio's toughest prisons: Mansfield Correctional, Richland, and the infamous Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, where nine inmates and one correctional officer lay dead after 11 days of rioting in 1993. He does not like to talk about his time behind bars, but one gets the sense that some things just do not need to be told.
Wrongful Convictions in America
Quantifying the extent of the problem of wrongful convictions in American prisons is a difficult proposition; given the fact that the current U.S. incarcerated population has crossed the two million threshold, the sheer volume of cases makes thorough examination a Herculean task. However, in figures compiled by the Law School of Northwestern University, 17 out of 298 convicted murderers facing the death penalty in Illinois have subsequently been exonerated since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977; this translates into a wrongful conviction rate of 5.7%. At this level, there could be over 100,000 wrongly convicted citizens in our nation's prisons.
The reasons for wrongful convictions are varied. Figures complied by the Innocence Project, a Cincinnati-based non-profit organization, show that the top causes of improper incarceration are mistaken identity, serology inclusion, defective or fraudulent science, and police/prosecutorial misconduct. The Danny Brown case is but one of thousands of cases of wrongful conviction in America.
"What happened to me could happen to any citizen," Brown says. "If you cannot afford the elite lawyers and the associated costs involved with proving innocence, you run the risk of being falsely imprisoned."
Freedom, Justice, and Other Things
Danny Brown was freed on April 9, 2001 through the efforts of a Princeton, New Jersey group known as Centurion Ministries. Founded by James McCloskey in 1983, the group has successfully obtained the release of 26 wrongly convicted persons throughout the United States.
The Lucas County Prosecutor's Office was satisfied with the one-assailant theory for nineteen years, until the point when DNA evidence proved conclusively that Danny Brown could not have raped Bobbie Russell. The testing not only eliminated Brown as a suspect, but also identified a man named Sherman Preston as the person from whom the semen originated. Ironically, Preston is incarcerated for the 1983 murder of Toledoan Denise Howell, in a rape-murder case that shares many similarities with the killing of Bobbie Russell.
After the bombshell of the DNA testing, and Brown's successful passing of a polygraph test in 2001, Lucas County prosecutors suddenly dusted off the two-assailant conjecture. They have steadfastly refused to eliminate Brown as a suspect, referring back to the phantom "second man" in Jeffrey Russell's vacillating witness statement to police in 1981.
In an interview with John Weglian, division chief of the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office, the county is committed to bringing this case to a close. Weglian insists that there remains an "active investigation," although he would not disclose any details of its efforts to prosecute those responsible for the death of Bobbie Russell. The County contends that both Brown and Preston are suspects.
This statement comes as a surprise to family members of Ms. Russell. Betsy Temple, niece of the murdered woman, says that there has been no communication between family members and the Prosecutor's Office in "years." The idea that there is an active investigation on the part of the county strikes family members as a cruel "joke."
The family feels that justice was served in 1982, and does not understand why, if the county believes that Danny Brown killed Bobbie Russell, the prosecutors do not retry the case. In addition, since no one is jailed for the crime, it is possible that the killer remains at large; as a result, Ms. Temple indicated that family members fear for their safety. They long for a day when the nightmare will finally end, and the family can achieve some sort of peace.
Danny Brown Today
A large part of Danny's life has been stolen from him, and a cloud of seemingly infinite suspicion continues to hang over his head. A young man in 1982, he is now 49 years old; while freed, he has not been officially exonerated. For the State of Ohio to admit that Danny was wrongfully convicted would make a civil suit seeking damages something of a slam-dunk. Danny Brown has filed a civil suit against the State of Ohio, naming the State, the County, and the City of Toledo as defendants (John Weglian refused to comment on the civil litigation). The State continues to throw up obstacles in the path of Danny's attempts to gain three major goals: apology from the state, complete exoneration, and restitution. In fact, one can still view Danny Brown's Ohio Department of Corrections file on the Internet; in the eyes of the State, he is simply an ex-convict.
Danny says that one of the most difficult aspects of the entire ordeal has been the cloud of suspicion that continues to hang over his head. "Even though I am released, I am still looked upon as a criminal," says Brown. "At what point can I reclaim my name?"
In nineteen years, Danny could have earned many hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages. In addition, what value can be placed upon the pleasant things most of us take for granted in our daily lives, such as watching a child birth, enjoying a basketball game, or attending the wedding of a family member? While an exact dollar figure for the damage done to Mr. Brown's life may be complicated to obtain, any amount would be better than what was paid to Danny Brown upon his release in 2001: $0.00.
In a gesture that borders on the Kafkaesque, Danny Brown was not even paid the normal release stipend, or "gate money," that prisoners traditionally receive. The State of Ohio normally supplies released inmates with "one set of clothing suitable for weather, plus three sets of underwear and socks and other accumulated clothing; from $25-$75 and personal, accumulated funds and property; applicable papers." He walked out of court on April 9, 2001 after nineteen years in prison with nothing but the clothes on his back. However, his release was bittersweet: "I was elated to be free, but somewhat resentful to be jailed for a crime that I did not commit."
Today, Danny's life has taken some turns for the better. He has married, and considers his wife Rhonda to be a blessing. He has worked several unskilled jobs since his release; the Associate's Degree he earned while incarcerated has not yet opened doors to a rewarding career. He is also taking classes at the University of Toledo, hoping to get a degree in a criminal justice-related field.
For a man treated so poorly by the system, Danny is surprisingly upbeat, positive, and does not exhibit bitterness.
"I want to change the system; I'm not angry at any particular person," he says as we look at the building where Bobbie Russell was murdered almost 23 years ago. "I hope to spend the rest of my life working to prevent this type of injustice from ever happening again."
The children in one of the apartments continue to stare at the odd pair of strangers standing on their grass. The muscular black man and the gangly white dude must be cops; why the hell else would they be snooping around this neighborhood?
Michael Brooks is a graduate assistant at the University of Toledo, and he vows to stay in school until he dies, since there is no way he could possibly repay his ever-increasing student loans. His work has appeared in numerous local and regional periodicals.