CRIME

Wrongfully Convicted Man Now Free, But State Won’t Call Him Innocent

CRIME
Danny Brown — Andy Grier For Vocativ
Apr 07, 2015 at 9:54 AM ET

Danny Brown spent 19 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit—a rape and murder on the east side of Toledo, Ohio. He was finally released in 2001 on the basis of DNA testing. A semen sample recovered from the refrigerator of the city’s crime lab, preserved since the days of his trial, tied the crime to a different man, a convicted felon already serving a life sentence.

Brown should be a free man now, but the one person who can truly set him up for a new life won’t do it. The district attorney in the county where Brown lives doesn’t believe that DNA evidence is enough to exonerate him, and she refuses to declare his innocence. In a strange inversion of the investigative process, she is waiting for evidence to emerge that will prove his guilt. As long as Brown remains a suspect in her mind, he has no claim on any of the $1 million he’d otherwise be eligible for under Ohio’s wrongful conviction law.

When Brown was released from prison, he made an earnest attempt at rebuilding his life. He took a job at a glass factory, and married a kind woman named Rhonda Riley. They got divorced after several years, but she still recalls him fondly. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer and he took care of me,” she said. “He had so much love to give. It was unreal.” But Brown was also “heartbroken,” Riley told me, and “searching for peace.”

Their relationship began to unravel around 2007 or 2008. As Brown took a series of legal actions to clear his name—none of which panned out—he and Riley filed for divorce. For a while, he’d managed to outrun the depression that was closing in on him. But then he was overtaken. Brown went on a cocaine bender, failed a drug test at the glass factory, and lost his job. He is now 59 years old, has no money to speak of, and is effectively homeless.

***

At the heart of every wrongful-conviction story is the question of compensation: Can you ever really pay back an innocent person for lost time? Most people would say no, but some states make a good-faith effort.

Thirty have statutes that offer some kind of restitution, though they vary widely in what they offer. (See our chart at the end of the story.) Texas, for example, provides up to $80,000 for each year of incarceration, while Montana merely offers financial aid for a college education. The remaining 20 states have no statutes at all, requiring the newly acquitted to seek damages through civil suits, which are nearly impossible to win. Of the 329 people who have been freed based on DNA evidence in the last 25 years, 92 of them, or almost a third, have received nothing.

Danny Brown falls into this category. He grew up on the west side of Toledo, near the scene of the riots that engulfed the city in 1967. His mother was a nurse who had to quit her job after she suffered a nervous breakdown, and his father was a postal worker. They raised eight children, of which Brown was the second oldest.

I recently visited him in Toledo, and we sat for several hours in an empty food court beside the Maumee River. Brown is athletically built, with vaguely jaundiced eyes and a missing front tooth that sometimes causes him to talk with a lisp. He has the jumpy aspect of a man with an overactive mind. Occasionally, his hands shake uncontrollably. “I have bad nerves,” Brown said. “I’ve had them my entire life.”

He spread hundreds of stained, tattered documents across a round table: police reports, court records and old trial notes. He has spent the last three decades reviewing them almost daily. It is an obsession—a need to understand what went wrong. After his release, Brown earned an associate degree in paralegal studies. But the more knowledge he gains, the more inexplicable and outrageous his case becomes. At one point during our meeting, he leaned across the table and jabbed his finger at a page of transcript. “It don’t make sense!” he said. “I can’t let it go. They ruined my life, and they’re still trying to.”

***

During Brown’s trial, in 1982, Ruth Ann Franks, then an assistant county prosecutor and now a judge, presented the state’s case. There were only a few facts that were not up for dispute. On the evening of December 5, 1981, at a housing project called Birmingham Terrace Apartments, a man broke into the home of Bobbie Russell. Her three children were asleep: twin girls who were 2, and a 6-year-old boy named Jeffrey. The man raped and sodomized Russell. Then he strangled her to death with an extension cord. Before leaving, he punched one of the twin girls in the face, stole a TV and a broken stereo, and turned on the kitchen stove’s gas burners.

In the months leading up to the crime, Brown and Russell had struck up a friendship that was at times intimate. She introduced him to her children, and Jeffrey knew his face and name. According to the state’s version of events, the boy, the prosecution’s sole eyewitness, had woken up from the commotion and peeked downstairs while his mother was being assaulted. But Jeffrey told several variations of this story, providing the kinds of contradictions that would have destroyed an ordinary adult witness. At one point, the judge was moved to say that “the court has found several glaring inconsistencies” in the child’s testimony, but, perplexingly, decided that, “rather than excise them…the court is going to just give to defense counsel a photocopy of each statement.”

But there is one “glaring” inconsistency that continues to remain relevant. During the trial, Jeffrey testified that he had seen two perpetrators in his house. Jon Richardson, the defense attorney, questioned him about the idea of a second man, and quickly discredited it. He first asked Jeffrey whether he had told a detective that he saw an unidentified accomplice steal the stereo. Jeffrey said yes, and then Richardson countered: “Did you just tell us a minute ago that you were under the bed facing the floor or the wall and never got out from under that bed until you heard that door closed?”

“Yes,” Jeffrey said.

“And they were already gone when the door closed?”

“Yes.”

“Just like you couldn’t have seen that, could you, Jeffrey?”

The boy nodded, and when Richardson asked the question again, he said, “No.”

In her closing statement, Franks provided a final version of the tale for the record. She declared, in no uncertain terms, that Brown was both the murderer and the rapist. “The other man,” she claimed, “carried the stereo out of the house. Franks continued: “We know who went in that home and who strangled her, sodomized her and violated that woman.”

***

Nearly 20 years later, when the DNA came to light, it upended the prosecution’s stance that Brown was the rapist and murderer. Brown was freed, and he began the legal process of trying to clear his name. It’s at that point that the current District Attorney, Julia Bates, repurposed the same two-man theory that had been blown apart during the trial. The new version does away with the notion that a second man helped transport the stolen goods. Instead, it suggests that while Brown may not have been the rapist, perhaps he was the murderer. The problem is that the DNA test established that the rapist was a man named Sherman Preston—and Preston and Brown have never met. In 1983, a year after Brown was wrongfully convicted, Preston raped and sodomized another woman, then strangled her to death. He’s now serving a life sentence.

Still, Bates insists that none of this matters. “There are so many questions,” she told the Toledo Blade in 2010, when Brown was protesting at the county courthouse every day, wearing a sign on his back that read “What does it take?” Bates told the reporter: “When we can’t answer questions, we can’t ask a jury to try the case.” For now she plans to search for answers to these “questions,” and until she finds them, Brown’s situation won’t change. “I don’t think little kids lie,” Bates added.

I reached out to Bates multiple times for comment, but didn’t hear back. She told the Blade as recently as January that Jeffrey, now an adult, is still certain of what he saw on the night of the crime.

***

Thirty years later, when my meeting with Brown at the food court ended, he scooped up his papers and placed them in an old blue-and-green backpack. “This is my life,” he said. “I’m trying to find a compelling way to put it together, but it’s complicated.” He’s working on an autobiography inspired by Les Miserables, one of his favorite books. “Jean Valjean lost his humanity and cried out like an animal,” he said. “But then he regained himself, got free, and became a productive human being.” He smiled and slapped his thigh. “Man,” he declared, “that’s a bad book.”

Brown and I said goodbye and shook hands. It was late in the day, time for him to get home. But he lived in another part of town, and didn’t have any money for his bus fare. He had to ask me for a few dollars.