The Joyce Ann Brown Story!


Joyce Ann Brown: 'I spent nine years in prison for a crime I didn't commit'; Texas woman tells the shocking story of her conviction and ordeal behind bars

Ebony,  Feb, 1991  by Marchel'le Renise Barber

JOYCE Ann Brown's nightmare began when her mother, Ruby Kelley, called her on Friday, May 9, 1980.

"Joyce," her mother said on that never-to-be-forgotten day," . . . there's a story in the paper that says the police are looking for you for the murder and robbery of a fur store owner."

Brown, now 44, told her mother that it was all a mistake and rushed to the store to buy a copy of the Dallas Morning News, which reported (HUNT FOR SUSPECTS IN FURRIER'S MURDER SPREADS) that on Tuesday, May 6, at about 1 p.m., two Black women had shot and killed the owner of Fine Furs By Rubin and had escaped with stolen furs in a 1980 brown Datsun that had been rented to a Joyce Ann Brown. The trigger woman, according to an eyewitness, wore pink pants and dark glasses, and the other robber wore a navy blue jogging suit.

Joyce Ann Brown couldn't believe her eyes. For she had worked from 8:48 a.m. to 4:12 p.m. on the day in question, and she had witnesses to prove it. Indignant, as any innocent citizen would be, she decided to go to the police station to clear up this misunderstanding. But Kelley, or MaDear as her family calls her, urged caution.

"When Joyce said she was going to the police station," MaDear recalls, "I told her, 'Don't go down there because you may not come back.'"

MaDear was right.

The police took one look at Brown and arrested her on the spot. From that moment, the wheels of justice started churning a reckless path through Brown's life, a path that would lead to nine years, five months and 24 days behind bars as prisoner No. 314036A at Mountain View prison. And almost every step of that path would be marked by strange coincidences.

There were, to begin with, too many Joyce Ann Browns. For police discovered almost immediately that the Joyce Ann Brown who rented the car was not the Joyce Ann Brown in police custody. The Joyce Ann Brown who rented the car from Dollar Rent A Car in Denver, lived in Denver. When she was questioned, she said she had loaned the car to a woman named Renee Taylor. The Denver Joyce Ann Brown, like the Dallas Joyce Ann Brown, said she was at work during the murder-robbery, and she, like the Dallas Joyce Ann Brown, produced witnesses who supported her story. (Astonishingly, according to reporter Brad Bailey, a third Joyce Ann Brown was a deputy in the court that tried Joyce Ann Brown.)

By this time, a confidential police informant--never identified--had focused attention on Renee Taylor, a Dallas woman with criminal records in several states who reportedly specialized in fur store robberies. Two years before the robbery at Fine Furs by Rubin, Renee Taylor and another Black woman wearing a navy blue jogging suit, had robbed a fur store in Albuquerque, N.M. The Albuquerque accomplice, according to published photographs and investigators who later interviewed her, bears a striking resemblance to Joyce Ann Brown. Although Brown is light brown and the Albuquerque accomplice is dark brown, "the facial similarity," investigator Jim McCloskey told a reporter, "is just amazing."

Acting on a tip, police raided the apartment of Renee Taylor, who had apparently fled the state. They found a .22 caliber revolver that had been fired, furs, and a pink jogging suit. They also found Taylor's fingerprints in the getaway car. They searched Joyce Ann Brown's Dallas home but could not find the blue jogging suit nor her fingerprints in the car or on any object linked to the crime.

Despite the negative evidence, police started building a case against Brown, a Black woman with a police record who, in many respects, was a perfect "fall woman." To her dismay, police revealed that she had an arrest record as a prostitutes. She didn't deny the fact, but claimed that she had worked as a call girl--"I never stood on street corners"--to get money to help support her family, which included 15 siblings and two children. But all that, she told police, was behind her. She was now a law-abiding citizen, gainfully employed as a receptionist at--another coincidence--another fur store. Brown says today that the worst part of her ordeal was explaining to her family the prostitution record.

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 1980--despite her protestations of innocence and despite the corroborating evidence of a lie detector test--the case of The State of Texas vs. Joyce Ann Brown was called in the Dallas County Court-house. The key witness for the prosecution was the widow of the fur store owner, who tearfully and dramatically identified Joyce Ann Brown as the robber in the navy blue jogging suit. When this witness identified a White who had an ironclad alibi as the lookout man, Kerry FitzGerald, Brown's court-appointed attorney, suggested that Brown was a victim of a mistaken identification, which is fairly common for eyewitnesses under extreme stress.

Brown testified that she didn't have a car on the day in question and that it would have been impossible for her to change clothes, drive to the store, rob and participate in the murder of the owner, change clothes again and return to her job. Several of her White co-workers testified that she came to work that day wearing a white skirt and black blouse and that she was working in the building during the time of the robbery. There were, to be sure, several minutes when she was not under the direct observation of anyone, but she was operating the telephone switchboard and there was no report of a disruption or delay in service.

The prosecution countered with a surprise witness, Martha Jean Bruce, who had shared a jail cell with Brown while she was awaiting trial and who testified that Brown bragged about committing the crime. The prosecution didn't tell the jury that Bruce had a prior conviction for lying to a police officer. And almost one month to the day after her testimony, a judge, acting on the recommendation of the district attorney's office, recommended a reduction in Bruce's sentence for attempted murder, citing her service as a witness against Brown. (The prosecution denied that she was promised leniency in exchange for her testimony.)

The all-White jurors didn't have the benefit of this information when, on Oct. 23, 1980, they found Brown guilty of aggravated robbery. Her sentence, one month later: LIFE.

"When I heard the verdict," Brown said, "my heart sank, but I had a courtroom filled with my family and I had to hide my emotions.... When I was being sentenced, I stood there and my insides were twisting and I turned back to look at my family to let them know everything was all right, but when they took me out of the courtroom and put me in a jail cell, that's when I let go and began crying. I couldn't stop."

Brown, a shapely woman who stands only five feet tall, says prison was dehumanizing. She says she was strip-searched and, once, fondled by an aggressive lesbian guard. Most of the prison staff treated inmates like animals, observed Brown who describes her experiences in her book, Joyce Ann Brown: Justice Denied.

Brown describes the prison as "a human warehouse" and is still outraged as she recalls being stripped of freedoms she once took for granted. Ultimately, says Brown, her worst loss was being separated from loved ones who, in a way, seemed to be serving the sentence, too.

Brown's family could only take so much suffering and eventually began to crack under the strain. "My father [Sylvester Spencer]," Brown says slowly now, tears beginning to well up in her eyes, "he couldn't come and see me often. I knew he loved me and believed I was innocent, but he just couldn't handle seeing me and then leaving me in prison."

During one visit to Brown, her common-law husband's son, Lee Jr., told her, "We just don't have a family anymore."

Less than a month after Brown was notified that she was denied a new trial, Lee Jr. was rushed to the hospital after shooting himself in the head. After lingering in a coma for almost a month, Lee Jr. died on April 5, 1985.

It was at this time, at the low point of her prison life, that Brown decided to turn her life around. Determined to "do her time like a lady," Brown began making the best of her life in prison. She became a role model and mother figure for many of the other inmates, earned an associate's degree in business, and stood up for her rights as a human being--which won her the respect of both inmates and prison staff.

Meanwhile, holes were developing in the case against her. Renee Taylor, who was a fugitive at the time of Brown's arrest and subsequent trial, was captured and convicted of murder. And in a surprise development, Taylor testified under oath that Brown did not participate in the robbery and murder.

During the same period, Dan Peeler, one of the jurors who helped convict Brown, changed his mind about her guilt. Peeler drove the same distance Brown would have had to drive during heavy lunch-time traffic without being missed by her co-workers, and concluded that he had made a mistake. "I did have doubts [about Brown's guilt[, but the testimony of the lady who lied is what swayed us," recalls Peeler, who has met with Brown since her release to apologize.

"In all those years, I never forgot Joyce," says Peeler. "It never went away. I knew there was something wrong."

Jack V. Strickland, a lawyer who began working on Brown's case about seven years after her conviction, says, considering the evidence against Brown, she never should have gone to prison. "At the time, Dallas' judicial system reflected a lot of prejudices and stereotypes," says Strickland, who, convinced of Brown's innocence, agreed to assist FitzGerald with an appeal without pay.

In 1988, Jim McCloskey, founder and director of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J., based group that fights for the freedom of innocent prisoners, agreed to take Brown's case. McCloskey and investigator Richard Reyna uncovered evidence proving that Bruce had lied under oath when asked about her criminal background.

Soon, both local and national media stepped up coverage of Brown's plight. Finally, on November 1, 1989, a Dallas court reversed her conviction on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to tell the jury about Martha Jean Bruce's prior conviction. Two days later, Brown was released from prison and greeted by her family and dozens of reporters. Four months later, the robbery charge against Brown was dropped.

Today, Brown is dedicated to improving the judicial system and keeping youth from crime by explaining that there's nothing "cool" about being in prison.

"In prison" she says, "I was humiliated every day ... and today people ask me all the time, 'Are you angry?' I say, 'Yes, I'm angry and will probably be angry for the rest of my life, but while I was in prison, God put a protective shield around me. He watched over me and saw me through.'"

Now a celebrity in her hometown, the former prisoner adds: "I've always believed that everything happens for a reason. And if I can help keep other innocent people out of prison, maybe, then, it will all have been worth it."

COPYRIGHT 1991 Johnson Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Marchel'le Renise Barber "Joyce Ann Brown: 'I spent nine years in prison for a crime I didn't commit'; Texas woman tells the shocking story of her conviction and ordeal behind bars". Ebony. Feb 1991. 08 Aug. 2008.

Author's Notes/Comments: 

This lady is a living legend! The link to her community help organization Web site, MASS (Mothers and Fathers for the Advancement of Social Systems Inc) is:

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