A true pioneer and advocate for those wrongfully convicted died last weekend at age 68.  Joyce Ann Brown – whose common name would later come to haunt her – spent more than nine years in a Texas prison after being wrongly convicted in 1980 of an aggravated robbery at a fur store in which the store owner was shot to death.

I had the good fortune to hear Brown’s story firsthand when she spoke at the 2012 launch of the Center on Wrongful Convictions Women’s Project.  I still remember the story she shared – because of her feisty personality, but more so because the “evidence” that led to her conviction was so utterly unbelievable.

A Tragic Coincidence

In May 1980, two armed women entered a fur store in Dallas owned by a married couple and stole furs.  After shooting the husband dead and leaving the wife clinging to life, the robbers fled in a getaway car registered to a Joyce Ann Brown.  The police mistook the car’s registrant, Joyce Ann Brown of Denver, for Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas.

Not only was her common name a factor in the mistaken identity, but the innocent Joyce Brown happened to work at a fur store a few miles from the one where the robbery and murder occurred.  The innocent Brown also had a prior arrest photo on file, and when police showed her mug shot to the wife, who had survived, the wife identified Brown as an accomplice to the woman who killed her husband.

Solid Alibi, But Justice Not Served

Innocent Joyce Brown of Dallas had a solid alibi – or so she thought.  She was at work the day of the robbery, as evidenced by her punch card and several witnesses.  But police claimed she could have taken part in the crime in the mere 36 minutes of time unaccounted for during her lunch break.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the innocent Brown, they did.  While awaiting trial, she shared a jail cell with a woman serving time for attempted murder.  Prosecutors put this cellmate on the stand, failing to disclose that the woman had recently been convicted of making false statements to the police.  She got on the stand and lied, claiming that the innocent Brown admitted to the crime while the two shared a cell.

Break in the Case, and Yet the Struggle Continues

The police later found the getaway car’s registrant.  That Joyce Ann Brown was in Denver and said she’d loaned the car to a friend who she had not seen since.  Police identified the friend as Renee Taylor.  When they searched Taylor’s residence, they found the furs stolen during the robbery, clothes matching the description of what the accomplice wore, and a gun.

Six months after Brown was wrongly convicted, the police finally found and arrested Taylor, who in order to spare her life, pled guilty to the fur shop owner’s murder.  She testified that neither of the women named Joyce Ann Brown was the second woman involved in the robbery and murder.

One would think that based on the lack of evidence, mistaken identity and surely the arrest and testimony of Taylor, the innocent Brown would have been released quickly.  But until some advocates pleaded on her behalf, Brown didn’t have such luck.  It took the help of an investigative reporter, a private investigator and a defense attorney to finally win her release nine years later.

An Unbroken Spirit

After being freed from prison, Brown helped thousands of inmates believed to be wrongfully convicted or incarcerated.  She rallied for them and their families, and lobbied on many issues including exoneree compensation, which she herself never received.

There are countless stories across the nation like Joyce Ann Brown’s.  I hope sharing her story promotes even a little awareness of false imprisonment issues.  You can learn more about her in the following articles:

http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/tx/joyce-ann-brown.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/joyce-ann-brown-shackled-by-her-name-to-anothers-crime-dies-at-68.html

Photo credit: Randy Belice