Jailed for a decade for another’s crime

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­post.com

“I sleep 14, 15, 16 hours straight,” Joyce Ann Brown said on na­tional tele­vi­sion in 1989 from be­hind a Plex­i­glass win­dow, de­scrib­ing one of the few com­forts in her life. She was a prison in­mate, and would re­main one un­til nine years, five months and 24 days had gone by.

“I don’t have to dream about a crime,” she con­tin­ued in an in­ter­view with the CBS news­magazine “60 Min­utes” that drew wide­spread at­ten­tion. “I don’t have to dream about see­ing a man shot down like a dog,” she said, “be­cause I wasn’t there.”

In 1980, Mrs. Brown was con­victed as an ac­com­plice in the armed rob­bery of a Dal­las fur­rier. One of the shop­keep­ers was mur­dered. Nearly a decade later, her con­vic­tion was over­turned in what was widely rec­og­nized as an ex­tra­or­di­nary case of mis­taken iden­tity.

Mrs. Brown, 68, died June 13 at a hos­pi­tal in Dal­las. The cause was a heart at­tack, ac­cord­ing to the re­port of her death pub­lished in the Dal­las Morn­ing News. For the past 25 years, she had been an ad­vo­cate for pris­on­ers, for­mer pris­on­ers and the wrong­fully ac­cused.

She was born Joyce Ann Spencer on Feb. 12, 1947, in Wills Point, Tex., and grew up in what was de­scribed as a poor com­mu­nity in Dal­las. She ac­quired the sur­name Brown by mar­riage — per­haps the first in an im­prob­a­ble se­ries of events that helped lead to her con­vic­tion.

To sup­port her chil­dren and large fam­ily, Mrs. Brown made money as a call girl, ac­cord­ing to pub­lished ac­counts of her life. An ar­rest for pros­ti­tu­tion en­tered her name and pro­file into law en­force­ment records.

Mrs. Brown later found em­ploy­ment as an as­sis­tant at a Dal­las fur­rier called Koslow’s. She was on duty May 6, 1980 — but clocked out for a re­ported 36- minute lunch break — when a holdup took place at another fur­rier, Fine Furs by Ru­bin, about three miles away.

The two as­sailants, like Mrs. Brown, were African Amer­i­can women. One wore pink pants; another wore a blue jog­ging out­fit, ac­cord­ing to an ac­count on the Web site of North­west­ern Univer­sity’s Bluhm Le­gal Clinic. The women or­dered the shop­keep­ers, Holo­caust sur­vivors Ru­bin and Ala Danziger, to fill bags with the shop’s ex­pen­sive goods.

Ru­bin Danziger was fa­tally shot in the con­fronta­tion. Ala Danziger sur­vived by telling the in­trud­ers that she had can­cer and had only weeks to live.

“We’ll just let you suf­fer,” was the re­ply.

The as­sailants left the scene in a 1980 Dat­sun. The ve­hi­cle, it was de­ter­mined, was a rental car loaned to one Joyce Ann Brown— a de­tail later pub­lished in a lo­cal news­pa­per. When Mrs. Brown saw her name in print, she re­ported to the po­lice in an ef­fort to re­solve any con­fu­sion. In­stead, she was ar­rested.

In­con­sis­ten­cies quickly sur­faced. The per­son who had rented the Dat­sun was Joyce Ann Brown of Den­ver, not Joyce Ann Brown of Dal­las. The Colorado woman later said that she had given the car to a friend, a Re­nee (or Rene) Tay­lor, and did not know where she had gone.

In Tay­lor’s apart­ment, ac­cord­ing to the North­west­ern Univer­sity ac­count, the po­lice found furs from the Danziger store, a pair of pink pants and a gun. Ala Danziger, pre­sented with a pho­to­graph of Mrs. Brown, iden­ti­fied her as the mur­derer’s ac­com­plice.

At trial, the state called a jail­house in­for­mant, Martha Jean Bruce, who had been in­car­cer­ated with Mrs. Brown and claimed that she had con­fessed to the crime.

At the core of Mrs. Brown’s de­fense was her alibi. To par­tic­i­pate in the crime, she would have needed to change clothes, drive to the Danziger fur­rier, con­duct the holdup, put her work at­tire back on and re­turn to the of­fice be­fore her lunch break ended. Col­leagues tes­ti­fied on her be­half.

The jury, which had no black mem­bers, con­victed Mrs. Brown de­spite a lack of phys­i­cal ev­i­dence in­crim­i­nat­ing her. The jury did not know that Bruce, the in­for­mant, had pre­vi­ously been con­victed of pro­vid­ing a false state­ment to the po­lice and would later re­ceive a re­duc­tion in her own sen­tence.

Mean­while, Tay­lor was ap­pre­hended in 1981 and pleaded guilty to Ru­bin Danziger’s mur­der. She de­nied that Mrs. Brown was her ac­com­plice. Both women passed poly­graph tests. But still Mrs. Brown re­mained in prison.

Dur­ing Mrs. Brown’s in­car­cer­a­tion, her daugh­ter grew up. She missed the birth of a grand­daugh­ter. A step­son com­mit­ted sui­cide.

“I don’t know if me be­ing in prison had any­thing to do with that,” Mrs. Brown told “60 Min­utes,” “but I be­lieve, and I have to live with it, that had I been home, I don’t think he would have been dead. I know he wouldn’t have.”

Mrs. Brown con­tin­ued to pro­fess her in­no­cence and re­ceived help from ad­vo­cates in­clud­ing Cen­tu­rion Min­istries, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to ex­on­er­ate the wrong­fully con­victed.

In Novem­ber 1989, the Texas Court of Crim­i­nal Ap­peals over­turned her con­vic­tion, find­ing that pros­e­cu­tors “ei­ther neg­li­gently or in­ad­ver­tently” failed to re­veal the jail­house in­for­mant’s prior con­vic­tion of ly­ing to po­lice.

“The day that I walked out of prison, I didn’t want to get too happy. ... I kept think­ing that per­haps it was a night­mare,” she told “60 Min­utes.” “Am I go­ing to wake up to­mor­row and none of this hap­pened?”

In 1994, her crim­i­nal record stem­ming from the holdup was ex­punged. Mrs. Brown, who had earned a de­gree in prison, found em­ploy­ment with a Dal­las county com­mis­sioner. She also led Moth­ers (Fathers) for the Ad­vance­ment of So­cial Sys­tems, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, and re­leased a memoir, “Joyce Ann Brown: Jus­tice De­nied” (1990), co-writ­ten with Jay Gaines.

A com­plete list of sur­vivors could not im­me­di­ately be con­firmed.

Years af­ter her re­lease, Mrs. Brown said in a sub­se­quent in­ter­view on “60 Min­utes” that she kept a log of her where­abouts in case she would ever be ac­cused of another crime. That way, she ex­plained, “I can go back and say, ‘No, this is where I was,’ be­cause the sys­tem taught me to do this,” she said. “Be­cause I don’t ever want to be caught in that po­si­tion again.”


Joyce Ann Brown, in 1989, con­tem­plates her fu­ture as she awaits her re­lease from the Moun­tain View Unit prison in Gatesville, Tex. She spent more than nine years there on an ag­gra­vated rob­bery con­vic­tion that was later over­turned and even­tu­ally erased from her record.

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