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A System on Trial : Sentencing the Wrong Man to Die

May 10, 1987|BARRY SIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — If there was a moment during the 13 years he sat on Death Row that gave Joseph Green Brown particular pause, it came when authorities arrived to measure him for a burial suit.

Brown had never thought he would die in prison. Now it suddenly occurred to him: These people are trying to kill me.

Only through a twist or two of fate, a well-timed phone call and an aptly chosen argument did they fail.

30 Feet From Chair

About 15 hours before Brown was to die, as he sat in a death watch cell 30 feet from the electric chair at Florida State Prison near Starke, a federal judge issued a stay. Then, in March, 1986, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Brown's conviction on a rape and murder charge, finding that the prosecutor had knowingly allowed and exploited false testimony from the state's star witness.

That star witness had long since recanted his testimony against Brown. Without him, prosecutors here in Hillsborough County last March decided that they had no case against Brown. There would be no retrial.

At 7 p.m. on March 5, a husky, medium-sized black man of 37 years found himself standing alone in the unadorned lobby of the Hillsborough County Jail. He had with him his only possessions--a large cardboard box of legal papers and 75 cents, the total of his personal prison account.

Brown's latest lawyer, Tom McCoun, finally arrived to pick him up. "Welcome to the free world," McCoun said.

Many Implications

The story of Joseph Green Brown offers all manner of issues and implications, and most have been chewed on by one group or another in this region.

There are those who see Brown's experience as a cautionary tale about abusive, overzealous police detectives and prosecutors. There are those who point out that a young, inexperienced court-appointed defense attorney with a poor black client was no match for a crafty, veteran prosecutor. There are those who criticize an adversary system that drives lawyers more toward winning than to realizing justice.

But whatever else Brown's experience suggests, it highlights the disturbing notion that the legal system does not always convict the right man in death penalty cases.

"This case really ought to make people take pause," McCoun said. "It is possible that a person who is innocent can be sentenced to death and very likely could be executed."

About 343 people have been wrongly convicted of offenses punishable by death in this country this century, and 25 were executed, according to a study on capital punishment issued in 1985 by Hugo A. Bedau of Tufts University and Michael L. Radelet of the University of Florida.

"This one got uncovered is all," said Brown's original trial lawyer, J. Michael Shea. "It makes me wonder how many other cases like this there are. What happens to cases when there are no bulldogs tugging away after the trial, like we had with this one? This case is the best example I know to show what's wrong with the death penalty."

Brown had no criminal record when he arrived in Tampa in 1973, at the age of 23, but that was only because he had never been caught. Reared in a foster home in Charleston, S.C., Brown knew a fair share about guns and robberies.

"I was no angel," he said, "but I had never physically hurt anyone intentionally."

Forced Woman to Disrobe

He crossed that line the night of July 7, 1973. Around midnight, he and a companion, Ronald Floyd, then 18, forced open a sliding glass door in a Holiday Inn motel room here and robbed a couple. During the robbery, Brown forced the woman to disrobe and began to molest her. She begged him to stop. Brown looked at her.

According to a police report, Brown said: "My mother had been hurt once. I never wanted to hurt a lady, no matter who she was."

He backed away.

The next day, a Sunday, at 1:45 p.m., Brown hailed a police car passing by on the street. He told the officer he had information about three robberies. He told the officer where he could find the gun used in the Holiday Inn robbery. He named Floyd as his accomplice.

"Remorse. I was feeling remorse," Brown said recently. "It was one thing to commit a robbery, but. . . ."

Detective Dropped By

As Brown and Floyd sat in the Hillsborough County Jail the summer and fall of 1973, police detective William Bebler took to dropping by on occasion to question them. At times he pulled one or the other from jail and drove the streets of Tampa, getting them to point out places where they had been.

That was Bebler's style. Around the courthouse and in the streets he was known by his nickname, Bebop. He reminded the prosecutors of the television detective Columbo played by Peter Falk. If you knew Bebop, they would say years later when it had become an issue, you would know that he doesn't intimidate. Bebop, they would say with appreciative smiles, is a plain, down-home type of guy.

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