FORDYCE, Ark. – In a court hearing Wednesday morning a judge ruled for the release of a man whose murder conviction was overturned in August.
Last month a federal judge ordered John Brown be released or recharged within 30 days after vacating Brown’s convictions for aggravated robbery and murder unless the State of Arkansas could bring new criminal proceedings against him..
After serving 26 years, Brown was released from prison mid-morning Wednesday.
The Midwest Innocence Project (MIP), a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in five states, announces today that client John Brown has been released on his own recognizance pending the state of Arkansas’ appeal of a federal district court judge’s order vacating his conviction.
Judge Billy Roy Wilson from the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Arkansas (Pine Bluff Division) overturned Brown’s sentence of life imprisonment on Aug. 21 and commanded Brown be freed by the Arkansas Department of Correction within 30 days unless the State of Arkansas brought new criminal proceedings against him. Brown was wrongfully convicted in 1992 of the brutal 1988 rape and murder of Myrtle Holmes, 78, in Fordyce, Ark.
The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office is appealing Judge Wilson’s decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The state also filed an emergency motion to the appellate court asking it to stay Brown’s release pending the appeal. The court denied that motion on Sept. 14, but also found that the state did not have to make a decision regarding retrial until the appeal was resolved. In the interim, the Dallas County (Arkansas) Prosecutor’s Office has not yet determined whether they will retry Brown or not. However, current prosecuting attorney John Thomas Shepard agreed this morning to release Brown pending a future decision by the Eighth Circuit. Brown was joined in court today by attorneys Rachel Wester from the MIP and Erin Cassinelli of Lassiter & Cassinelli, a law firm in Little Rock, Ark.
“We are ecstatic that Mr. Brown returns home a free man today,” said Tricia Bushnell, attorney for Brown and executive director of the MIP. “But justice will not be done until all charges are dropped and Mr. Brown is fully exonerated. No physical evidence ever connected John Brown to the crime, and there was no other evidence whatsoever until investigators manufactured it.”
It took two separate trials to convict Brown, and his co-defendants, Reginald Early, Charlie Vaughn, and Tina Jimerson. The State of Arkansas’ case relied entirely on a now-recanted false confession from Vaughn, an alleged accomplice and other unreliable, incentivized witnesses.
In the first trial, the jury split six-to-six on Brown’s guilt and the court declared a mistrial. In the second trial, critical DNA evidence was omitted that excluded Brown and Vaughn as contributors to DNA collected from the victim. While the evidence excluded Brown and Vaughn, it included Early as a potential perpetrator.
Despite DNA evidence excluding Brown from the scene of the crime, Vaughn’s unreliable and confused confession was crucial to Brown’s conviction. The confession was read to the jury at trial, despite Vaughn testifying on the stand that he was not involved in the murder of Holmes and that he mentioned Brown, Jimerson and Early only because he was told to do so and was threatened with the death penalty.
Vaughn became a suspect when Michael Joe Earley, an investigator and former police officer, provided Vaughn’s name to police. Earley told police that Taura Bryant, his own family friend and informant, reported Vaughn and the other co-defendants committed the crime. But Vaughn repeatedly denied any knowledge of the crimes.
Conversely, in 1991, Vaughn suddenly confessed to the crimes, pleaded guilty the very next day, and named Brown, Early, and Jimerson as the co-perpetrators. Investigator Earley worked closely with law enforcement throughout the investigation, before and after Vaughn’s confession, and received a $5,000 reward for closing the case. New investigation revealed Vaughn’s confession occurred after a previously undisclosed informant was placed in the cell with him. The conversation was recorded and provided to the prosecutor, however, the recording was destroyed and never turned over to the defense.
“Here, the ‘State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards,’ built on a highly questionable confession, supported by jail-house trustees and testimony from witnesses who were so drugged out, they cannot even remember testifying in a murder trial,” wrote Judge Wilson in his opinion. “The State’s failure to disclose the use of an informant to entice the confession is sufficient, alone, to undermine confidence in the verdict. But this was not its only failure. The State also failed to disclose, and actually destroyed, a recording of the informant eliciting the confession.”
In addition to new evidence proving Vaughn’s confession was coerced and that the State’s other witnesses testified falsely, further conclusive proof of Brown’s innocence included a full confession by co-defendant Early.
In 2015, Early signed an affidavit providing grisly details of robbing, raping and murdering Holmes completely by himself. His confession is corroborated by physical and forensic evidence. Early testified at Brown’s and Jimerson’s evidentiary hearings in 2016 and 2017, where he again swore under oath that he was the sole perpetrator of the rape of murder of Holmes.
“Early’s confession revealed that significant evidence used against Brown was manufactured and confirmed what Brown said all along,” said Bushnell. “He did not commit these crimes and he did not know Early or Vaughn.”
Bushnell and the MIP took on Brown’s case in 2015 to seek federal habeas relief, and for the first time, completed a comprehensive, reasonable, and independent investigation into Brown’s innocence.
Brown’s release comes nearly 30 years to the day after Holmes was murdered on Sept. 21, 1992.
In addition to Bushnell, Wester and Cassinelli, Brown was also assisted by MIP legal interns Micah Moore and Rachel Price, investigator Blair Johnson and students in the Spring 2017 Fundamentals of Investigation Course taught by Bushnell and adjunct instructor Quinn O’Brien at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) Law School.
FORDYCE, Ark.– After 26 years in an Arkansas prison maintaining his innocence, this week a federal judge overturned a man’s robbery and murder convictions.
John Brown is 1 of 4 people serving a life sentence in connection to the brutal rape, robbery, and murder of an elderly Fordyce woman nearly 3 decades ago.
United State District Judge Billy Roy Wilson Tuesday order and ruling are 26 pages.
Down the road from where the train rolls through the Dallas County town of Fordyce, a house looked loved on Thursday.
But locals like Mose Allen know it’s horrific history.
Mose Allen said, “Just had got married me my wife and kids live up the street up there around the block from where it took place.”
He recalled the September 1988 morning he learned of the murder at that home.
“It shook the town really,” he said.
A U.S. judge ordered Tuesday 1 of the 4 people serving life in prison in connection to the 1988 rape, robbery and murder of an elderly woman be freed or face a new trial.
Allen said, “I’m glad for him he deserves to be out because John wasn’t the type of person to do nothing like that.”
John Brown maintained his innocence the last 3 decades according to his attorney with the Midwest Innocence Project.
Tricia Bushnell said, “I mean we feel really, really, really good.”
Bushnell represents Brown. She said this is a big first step for her client who’s served 26 years in prison for a crime he maintains he never committed.
“It’s an important decision and it’s a strong statement about what the state (and) what a defendant’s rights are (and) that evidence must be reliable,” Bushnell said.
The federal judge called the case “fairly cut and dry” citing constitutional violations and new evidence including a co-defendant’s confession in 2015.
Bushnell said, “Mr. (Reginald) Early confessed to doing this crime alone. He has provided very detailed facts about he did the crime.”
Allen said he thinks Brown should get out.
“They innocent like I said I was around them that night they had a party,” Allen said.
Not all the locals agreed.
A man who identified himself as a former sheriff Donny Ford told our reporter Price McKeon on the phone that he firmly believes Brown is guilty.
In the judge’s order, Judge Wilson wrote the state has until September 20th— one day short of the 30th anniversary of the murder- to decide if they’ll re-try Brown or he’ll be released.
The state could also appeal the ruling.
To read the order, click here.