In 1990, Tyrone Brown, then 17 years old, took part in a $2 Dallas stickup in which no one was hurt. He got caught, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, and received a sentence of 10 years probation. A few weeks later, he was in court again -- because a drug test detected the presence of marijuana in his urine. For still unexplained reasons, his sentencing judge, Keith Dean, threw the book at him. The 17-year-old was resentenced to life in prison, where he remains to this day.
Tyrone Brown with daughter Elaine (picture from november.org)
But now, thanks to drug reform activists, a Dallas newspaper, a nationally televised investigative journalism program, and outraged citizens across the land, Brown may finally get a second chance. An effort to win a commutation of his sentence from Gov. Rick Perry (R) and the Texas parole board is well underway.
Despite his efforts to seek redress and freedom, Brown sat unnoticed in the burgeoning Texas prison system for year after year. In desperation, in 2004 Brown sent a letter detailing his plight to The November Coalition, a national drug reform organization that concentrates on drug war prisoners. A few months later -- after verifying Brown's information -- the Coalition added Brown to the list of drug prisoners on its The Wall web pages, and a few months after that, they got a call from Dallas Morning News reporter Brooks Egerton.
"We posted his story on The Wall in March 2005, and I heard from Brooks Egerton that fall," said November's Chuck Armsbury. "He couldn't believe this business about getting a life sentence for smoking a joint on probation."
Last April, Egerton published a story, "Scales of Justice Can Swing Wildly," contrasting Judge Dean's treatment of Brown -- a poor, black teenager -- and John Alexander Wood -- a wealthy, well-connected white man. While Brown got 10-year suspended sentence for the robbery, Wood got a 10-year suspended sentence for murdering a prostitute. When Brown tested positive for pot, Judge Dean sent him to prison for life. When Wood repeatedly tested positive for cocaine and got arrested for cocaine possession, Judge Dean didn't jail him for life. Instead, he let Wood stay a free man and even exempted him from having to take drug tests or meet a probation officer.
In that article, Judge Dean refused to discuss the two cases, saying he might have to rule on them again. But he told the Morning News that he generally tried to evaluate "the potential danger to the community" and "what, in the long run, is going to be in the best interest of the community and the person themselves."
According to courthouse observers cited by Egerton, Judge Dean typically let defendants like Brown off with a warning for a positive marijuana test and gave them a couple days in jail for a second violation. "Life in prison for smoking a joint -- that's harsh in any case," said former probation officer Don Ford.
Egerton's April story not only outraged readers in Texas, it caught the eye of ABC News' 20-20, which aired a program on Brown's case in early November and ran an update on Thanksgiving Day. With the airing of the 20-20 pieces, the outrage went national.
"After the 20-20 piece aired, a wonderful group of citizens coalesced around justice for Tyrone," said November Coalition executive director Nora Callahan. "People began discussing this on the 20-20 message boards, then they found our web site. We worked with those people to form the group Good Luck, Mr. Brown -- those were Judge Dean's parting words to him -- and now we are working to get his sentence commuted," she told Drug War Chronicle.
College students and housewives came together to work to free Brown, and so did lawyers. One of them was Florida attorney Charley Douglas. "I saw the ABC 20-20 special and I was stunned by the utter injustice of what occurred in that Texas courtroom," he told the Chronicle. "I knew something had to be done to bring justice to a man who has been denied justice for so many years.
Douglas was careful to stay on point. "This is about unequal justice, not a campaign against the drug laws," he said. "We have a lot of people interested in drug reform, but we are trying to stay focused on the goal of getting Tyrone out. How does a rich white guy get a slap on the wrist and poor black guy get life in prison for smoking marijuana? It's a tragedy of the American justice system and we are bound and determined to right that wrong."
Given what has happened since the firestorm broke, that may just happen. The campaign has managed to procure letters from Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill, Sheriff Louie Valdez, and -- just this week -- Judge Dean himself asking for a commutation of sentence. (Judge Dean is now out of office; he was defeated in the November elections.)
Those letters didn't happen by themselves, said Douglas. "Over Thanksgiving, I spoke with Dallas NAACP head Bob Lydia, and he said we needed to get DA Hill on board, so we launched a letter-writing campaign asking him to do whatever he could to support Mr. Brown's release, and on November 30, he sent a letter to Gov. Perry asking for the commutation process to begin. We're very, very excited about that."
Lydia reported Monday after meeting with Judge Dean that Dean had promised to seek an end to Brown's imprisonment, but according to the Dallas Morning News, neither Lydia nor the Texas parole board had received anything from him as of Tuesday afternoon.
Once the parole board gets a commutation request it will consider Brown's case. The board's top lawyer, Laura McElroy, told the Morning News it is not easy to win a commutation without presenting new facts not available to the court or jury at trial, but that she would do what she could. "If the law can be stretched, we'll stretch it," she said, adding that Brown's sentence was the worst example of judicial overreaction to a probation violation she had ever seen. "It's legal, but nobody likes this. Nobody thinks this is fair," she said. "Everybody's really concerned and paying attention to it."
In the meantime, Tyrone Brown sits in prison. He is not technically a drug war prisoner, but he joins several hundred thousand others who are. In Brown's case the war on drugs was not the cause, but the means for injustice. In those cases of people imprisoned for years or decades on drug charges, the drug war is both cause and means.