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Feature: Clamor Grows for Freedom for Texas Marijuana Prisoner Tyrone Brown

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
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.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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I Hope He Gets Out

This is the kind of mindless brutality that may be what ultimately ends the War on Non-Corporate Drugs. I read that years ago, some black guy got 25 years in Texas for posessing two joints. I thought that that kind of barbaric stupidity was in the past, but sadly it appears that it's still around. As for Judge Dean, it's hanging judges like him who give the judicial system a bad reputation.

what ia gnorant son of a

what ia gnorant son of a whore you are

what an ignorant son of a

what an ignorant son of a whore you are

law breaking n*****

For those of you who do not know, it has been proven that comments like this are usually put out by those on the left to make you good people mad, or too see if they can make you start calling names and as you can see it has worked. Oh by the way what makes some of you think that if a person lives in a trailer they are not as good as you, or not worth your time. They may have fallen on hard times, so what is with the epitaph trailer trash? That last time I looked that would make you predisposed dislike someone and I think the word in english is bigotry. I also feel sorrow for this young man who was rightly prosecuted but wrongly sentenced. The sooner he is out of jail the better.

"fuck that nigger"?

Your sister and ex - wife probably already have. You fuckin "Redneck".

reply to niger,correction, black african american

Set him free in gods name!! they set noell bush free!!!reform our jails and prisons,the people you preach laws too show you a world where no law lives by the people who are intrusted to have them inforced by...wake up america! it could be your child..trickling down affect from monkey see monkey doo,does not excuse us as a people to being accountable for knowing what is going on and not doing anything about it... black african americans ARE the first people on the face of this earth,and i am considered white.we all at one time or another have been inslaved,whats your problem,you havent had anything happen to you to give you any sense of who you are and we are as a people? there is no excuse for ignorance of this kind,for the education is out there,you just choose to be the hatefull self you are. you have to practice age old ingorance that got this country in the same mess it did when they thought they were better than the indians?...they have just as much a right to be here as the whites,our ansectors brought them over here for slaves,what have you done to show black people you are a higher evolved white mind that than of your great grandfather?funny how we could all use one anothers heart.... the n word shows a lack of wanting to become a better human being,some of the best people i have ever met are black and i am proud to be called a woman of many colors of my heart... people you need to stand and be heard,this effects everyone,even if not you immediately,research the facts as to why this happens and then one will have something of a world long record of pride ego,hatret,fear,ignorance and really big hyprocricy of who you are and who you know and how much money do you have? soo its a crime to smoke pot,and all that goes on by the badges inside is not?,till this is layed wide open,till this barbaric treatment stops,american will be stained with such an indiffernce on whos breath of life is valuable and whos is not.... soo we won't talk about what there punishment is all in the name of a law and a system that is not forced to inforce the laws,its for those people over there,not us people over here...your guilty and your sentence is horrifiker than anything you ever did,this county is truely sickened in the heart of compassion for there fellow brother....ever notice no one famous goes to jail for drugs? saddly,rarely,no one cares less it affects them,oh; now then; its different. get oprah involved,she can help rally to bust this really uglyness of a county who preaches equality wide open to truths americans rarely know the root cause of or what to do about it,how about starting with expossing the truth and stop telling lies,we already know the awefull truth.

law breaking n*****

It's hard to imagine a person so filled with hate for himself that he would resort to the kind of insult posted here. I feel sorry for the child that he was as he must have been brutalized either emotionally or physically to be so filled with venom and blackness.

law breaking n*****

It is sad to say, but this is why we will probably never regain our moral high ground in this world. Nothing has changed but time.

I hope this boy gets out

Once again injustice..I was born and raised in Texas and have lived all over the united states but when I come back to Texas I see the injustice that goes on here..and the prejudice.. this poor man has been mistreated and needs to be released.. I once again will say this...Alcohol causes many deaths every year. You never hear someone having a major wreck because someone was smoking pot... I can go get drunk all week-end and that is fine ... but if decide to smoke pot ...well I could get drug tested on monday and lose my job... if alcohol is legal then so should marijuana...or if marijuana is illegal then so should alcohol..but we know that will never happen because alcohol brings in too much money for the goverment and corporate world...Montana has passed a law that marijuana is low priority for law officers !!!!

law breaking N*****

your an idiot... your probably trailer trash

your, you are, you're.

one needn't live in a trailer to be iggernant.

this is what happens when you up the door to negative karma

pot should be totaly legal and taxed for 21 and up. The real injustice here is this guy robbed someone and only got 10 years out, where is the punishment in that, he should of gotten 10 years in. The rich white guy should be in jail as well waiting for his electric chair. Pot is mild, but this guy was on probation for robbery so he should of gotten 10 in for further pushing his luck on parole and the same if he drank alcohol. Violent crimes should have greater punishments, period.

should, should have, should've

one needn't live in a trailer to be ignernant.

Comments to the uneducated

It is a shame that America continues to produce the uneducated one liners. I call them the uneducated one liners because the ignorance and lack of education only allow them enough brain power to comment with a negative degrading one line comment. It never fails and I think they know this and this is the reason for such hostility. I actually thank them for being such idiots. Without them maybe the south would have won the war and life would have been different for me. So thanks, for your ignorance, but now it grows old, some of us are not living in the past and some of us want to continue to move forward in this melting pot. We want to live together in peace and harmony, to come together as a mixed community and assist someone who is in need regardless of race. Last but not least, because of the togetherness of an entire community of black , whites, hispanics and others, this man will be freed and your comments mean nothing here. There will be no other comments addressed to you because your fire as of this very minute has been put out. The main focus at this time will go back to the main topic of this story...I only respond just to let you know that, so keep the ignorance to yourself as you drown in your wretchedness.

P.S Your to imbecelic to even pick up a dictionary and find out what that means!!!!! Mr. One liner......
I appologize to the readers for any grammatical errors. That's my disclaimer :0)


It figures that something like this would happen in a backward ass place like Texas. Considering that it costs $20-40k a year to imprison someone, if I were a Texas resident, I'd be outraged . After 16 years, the cost is staggering. This kind of money could be better spent elsewhere, and the guy could have learned his lesson with a sentence of a few months.

F*** that N*****?

Wow, that is some truly profound thinking. I bet you had to use both brain cells for that one... I would like to think such hatefulness is bred (or inbred) only in trailer parks. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you need proof, look in the White House. It is always a mistake to underestimate one's opponents, just ask England, Japan, Germany, the Taliban etc... While it is amusing to imagine a greasy, smelly bit of white trash stuffed into an undersized wife-beater stupidly typing out such gems as "f*** that N*****" while absentmindedly fondling him/herself, that would be too easy. The truth is, he is your neighbor, your boss or maybe even the nice clerk down at the 7-11. These people are the very proof that our constitution works, because it is the defense of speech you hate that guarantees our own freedom of speech.
I personally think that ANYONE who commits a crime should spend some time in the government's care. The fact that Mr Brown was not imprisoned is offensive. The fact that Mr Wood was not imprisoned is infinitely disturbing. Texas prides itself on being tough on crime. Evidently, justice has many different shades in that particular pit...
By the way, as a history buff, I can tell you that the south didn't lose the war due to stupidity. They simply could not keep up with the industrial/financial output of the Union. No agrarian society has ever beaten an industrial society in war. Once again: Never underestimate your opponent.

Mr. Brown/Mr. Faust

Staying on point here, (although it is refreshing to note the many negative opinions to the anonymous hate mail), it seems to me that there is some confusion as to who will step forward to complete this task.

Shouldn't the one who commanded this whole thing in the first place, former Judge Dean, be the one to step forward and accept responsibility for his actions? After all, in the end, a man's honor is determined by the way he treats his fellow man. Or is it just politics at any cost? Cowardice or contrite? Honor or shame? Which will it be, and who will decide that, Mr. Dean? And when?

It would be nice to see him released before Christmas Day.


while i do agree that the length of the sentence for the parole violation was a bit stiff, i also believe that,as earlier stated, that he should have recieved some "indoor" time for the initial offense. had he allready been in jail where he belonged, the parole violation never would have happened. i also believe that the white guy should have gotten the death penalty, even though i have a relative who was executed in the state of north carolina in 2000

long sentence, relative

Your sentence was way too long. You HAD a relative who was executed.

F*__ that *__

It would have been so much more truthful if you had called this guy a leech on society, a lazy welfare robbing bum, a no account uneducated bully, who is now crying since he's been busted! I feel sorry for his daughter who is pictured on the net with this loser of a dad! Why show your ignorance with the n*-- word, you d a ! Now, please don't get angry and beat up your wife, just go on back, and sleep with your sister, and hit your moms' purse again for your meth pipe, S H !

obivously comments using

obivously comments using racial terms like those listed above are written to get people agitated. Don't waste your time responding - the person who wrote it is probably educated (since they are reading newsworthy information). I'm guessing some teenager who is bored and has heard about the Michael Richard's thing.

But with regards to the piece, the life term sentence was severe, but he definitely deserves to be in jail. Maybe the judge was trying to make an example of the guy because if he had access to drugs, then it makes it look like he's making a joke of the judicial system.

obivously, the person, they are, some teenager

obivously you oppose edumacation, especially in english

Marijuana is good for you!

I LOVE MARIJUANA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Set The Brothers Free

Set this brother free!

turnaround time

I bet if homeboy gets out, he will be back in in less than 6 months

Set him free!!! Best

Set him free!!!

Best regards, Mark

Comments to the History Buff...

@ H.O.

"No agrarian society has ever beaten an industrial society in war. Once again: Never underestimate your opponent."

Did you forget about the War between Vietnam and the U.S.?  As a Black American Male, it is my opinion, that we all need to get Smarter, Work Harder, and treat each other (Americans) with due Respect, otherwise we are all F*****.


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