United States District Court Judge in Arkansas Overturns John Brown’s Robbery, Murder Convictions

 

Midwest Innocence Project client to be freed or recharged by Sept. 20 after serving 26 years in prison for crimes he did not commit

 

*Update*

John Brown was fully exonerated on April 29, 2020!

 

Little Rock, Ark. (Aug. 23, 2018) – 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 a federal judge ordered client John Brown be released or recharged within 30 days after vacating Brown’s convictions for aggravated robbery and murder on Tuesday.

 

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 and commanded he be freed by the Arkansas Department of Correction unless the State of Arkansas brings 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.

 

“No physical evidence ever connected John Brown to the crime,” said Tricia Bushnell, Executive Director of the MIP. “And there was no other evidence whatsoever until investigators manufactured it. Brown was convicted based on the false confession of a vulnerable and limited co-defendant and the use of incentivized informants, whose motivations were never disclosed. Brown’s case is an example of the significant work and time it takes to correct an injustice.”

 

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 complete, reasonable, and independent investigation into Brown’s innocence.

 

While Brown remains in prison, Judge Wilson set a deadline for him to be released by Sept. 20, if the State does not recharge him, nearly, 30 years to the day after Holmes was attacked and murdered by Early on Sept. 21, 1992.

 

 

In addition to Bushnell and MIP staff attorney Rachel Wester, Brown was also represented by Erin Cassinelli of Lassiter & Cassinelli, a law firm in Little Rock, Ark. The team 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.