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Thursday, March 26, 2009
Though you are unlikely to know either his name or the facts of his case, Barney Brown’s story is perhaps one of the most egregious wrongful convictions in the history of the United States.
In 1970, Barney was a 13-year old African American living in Hollywood, Florida. On March 23rd of that year, the Florida Highway Patrol pulled over a car in which Barney was a passenger. The police then took Barney and his companions—who were also young African American boys—to Palm Beach County Jail. Barney and his friends were detained for four days, during which time authorities never filed any charges against them, nor notified their parents.
After four days of detention, Barney and his friends were brought to Dade County (now Miami-Dade) on suspicion of raping a white woman and robbing her and her husband. From the beginning, Barney, who had no previous criminal record, asserted that he was completely innocent and didn’t know anything about the crime.
He was asked to stand for several lineups, but each time, the victim was unable to identify him as her attacker.
Nevertheless, the police refused to believe him or the victim. Barney was brutally interrogated. He was beaten so badly that his right eye swelled shut. He still cannot see out of it.
On April 30, 1970, Barney was tried for rape and robbery in juvenile court. Barney pled not guilty. And when the victim was called to the stand, she still could not identify Barney as her attacker. The judge in the case acquitted Barney of all charges and ordered his case to be dismissed.
Barney’s nightmare should have ended there, but it didn’t. Despite his acquittal in juvenile court, the prosecutor retried him in adult court and asked for the death penalty, which was permissible at the time. Barney again pled not guilty, despite the fact that the prosecution offered him three years in a juvenile facility in exchange for a guilty plea.
When Barney’s mother heard about the prosecutors’ deal, she begged him to accept it. But Barney couldn’t do it. “Maybe I could lie about other things,” Barney explains, “but I couldn’t lie against myself.”
In violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of double jeopardy—“nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”—Barney was convicted of the same rape and robbery he had already been tried and acquitted of. The jury voted 7-5 to have mercy on Barney, and so instead of being sent to his death in the electric chair, they sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“Prison,” Barney explains, “was a living hell.” And yet Barney refused to be a victim. “I had a motto: prison wasn’t going to take more from me than I was from it.”
“I grew up in prison,” says Barney, “learning every positive lesson I could. I finished high school, attended college, earned a college degree, obtained FCC certification as a radio technician, and taught inmates to read. Every day, then every year, then every decade, I knew I would get out of prison because I did nothing wrong.”
Barney was right. Though it took almost 40 years, the truth eventually prevailed. After decades of trying to prove his innocence, lawyers Benedict Kuehne and Susan Dmitrovsky took his case before Judge Antonio Marin of Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit Court.
In an opinion that probably every person who has ever thought about going to law school would wish they would have a chance to write, Judge Marin ordered Barney’s conviction to “be vacated and the defendant discharged from all liability for the charged offense.”
“This case,” Judge Marin ruled, “presents a clear example of a grievous constitutional double jeopardy violation[.] As a result of this clear constitutional maxim, Mr. Brown should have never been forced to defend himself against the same rape and robbery charges a second time. His life sentences for the 1970 adult court convictions should have never happened. His incarceration within Florida’s prison system for most of his adult life should not have taken place.”
When news of Barney’s exoneration reached the prison on the evening of September 24, 2008, their reaction was unfortunately typical of many wrongfully convicted people. Prison officials simply released him into the dark, rainy night with no one there to meet him and nowhere to go.
As the rain beat down upon him, Barney noticed a guy talking on a cell phone. He remembered his sister’s phone number, and asked the stranger if he could use his cell phone to call her, so she could pick him up.
Barney later reflected on his first moments of freedom:
“September 24, 2008—38 years after the nightmare began—my first day on the outside, was a dreary, rainy day for most. For me, it was the best day of my life. I was free; free to live my life; free to help others; free to be me; Barney Brown, not Inmate 029663.”
In the next few weeks, I hope to have video of Barney, his family, and the people who helped exonerate him. In the meantime, you can find Barney on facebook or you can email him at barneybrown38(at)gmail(dot)com.