When Barney Brown left his Carver Ranches home in 1970, he did not know he would be gone for 38 years.
Brown, then 13, was arrested, beaten, then acquitted on charges of raping a white woman and robbing her husband — only to be retried for the same crime and sentenced to life in prison and then win his freedom after 38 years.
Brown had planned to attend the new Miramar High School but he never made it then. Now, at age 54 and a paralegal and director of the Liberty Project, he finally came to the school, 3601 SW 89th Ave., for a welcome home ceremony attended by about 20 students, family members and some members of the class of 1972.
“We heard Mr. Brown’s story and his testimony is amazing,” said Brian Faso, Miramar High’s principal, “and the kids need to hear it.”
It was a Saturday, Brown said, when he and friends were returning from a trip to Ocala. The Florida Highway Patrol pulled them over and questioned them about a robbery and rape. “I told them I didn’t know anything about it,” he said.
That same day, they were taken before a judge in Palm Beach County and put in several lineups. Witnesses and the victims “clearly said I was not one of them,” he said. Yet, he was held in custody 30 days until trial. He was found not guilty on all charges but was not released. Instead, he was taken from the juvenile detention facility in Miami-Dade County and “they rode me around and beat me until my right eye closed, still trying to get me to confess. When I could not confess, they took me to the Dade County Jail and left me there.” He still cannot see out of his right eye, he said.
After a few months in the Dade County Jail, prosecutors decided to try him as an adult. The prosecution offered Brown three years in a juvenile facility in exchange for a guilty plea. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I just wanted to go home.”
Prosecutors asked for the death penalty but while the jury convicted him, it voted 7-5 against the death sentence and he was sent to prison for life.
“I didn’t know what to think of it,” he said. “I was in prison with grown men. But by the grace of God, many of them tried to help me, so I grew up in jail.”
He passed the time educating himself and that was how he discovered his conviction violated the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy – trying a person twice on the same charges.
He wrote petitions to the court and each time a judge would look at it and “they would say, ‘No merit. Denied,’” he said. Eventually, he got in touch with The Innocence Project — a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating those wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Attorney Barry C. Scheck prepared a motion and asked Brown to file it. Then in his 35th year of imprisonment, Brown went through a series of judges before his case landed in front of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Antonio Marin in September 2008.
After hearing five minutes of arguments, “Marin stepped down from the bench, placed his arms around me and said, ‘Barney, what they did to you was wrong. You never should have been in prison.’”
Marin ordered Brown released. “They literally threw me out of the back door of Dade County Jail,” he said.
Brown’s mother, Claudette Williams, described the ordeal as “overwhelming.”
“The night he came home, I was waiting. I had gotten a call. When he opened the door, I was so happy. We all hugged him, hit him, sized him up,” she said.
Claudette Williams, 72, who lives in the family’s Hollywood home, said she never gave up.
“I made sure that he was a part of the family for those 38 years,” she said. “We sent pictures, visited, when there was a new baby we took pictures. We even hooked up phones so he could be a part of our Thanksgiving dinners and things like that.”
The state has not compensated Brown for the time he was locked up wrongfully. Attorneys with The Innocence Project are trying to find a lawmaker to sponsor a bill to compensate him, he said.
“But I don’t worry about the money,” Brown said. “My only concern is that those who come after me won’t have to face this dilemma, this type of injustice.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net.