This week Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda dismissed a wrongful-imprisonment lawsuit brought by Danny Brown, Toledo’s own Exhibit A for how the justice system in America sometimes fails abysmally.
We can say of American justice, mimicking Churchill, that while it is the best in the world and better than any alternative, it often fails. And sometimes the failures, as in Brown’s case, are whoppers. Sometimes the law fails utterly to align with any conception, conceptual or commonsensical, of justice, or logic.
In 1982, Brown was convicted of the December, 1981, murder of Bobbie Russell in East Toledo. He served 19 years in prison for the crime. In 2001, he was released from prison when DNA from the rape of Ms. Russell was matched to a man named Sherman Preston, then, and still today, serving life in prison for a different rape and murder. Brown also passed a lie-detector test when he was released.
Brown was granted a new trial upon his release, but the Lucas County prosecutor chose to dismiss the case.
That should have been the end of it — for Brown. But it was not. Prosecutor Julia Bates has maintained, throughout all these years, that the case is not truly closed, that it remains open, and that Brown is still a person of interest in the case. But no attempt has been made to try Preston, or to retry Brown, or to try them both for the crime. Brown has never been re-questioned by investigators. And what physical evidence existed in the case was long ago destroyed or has gone missing.
The notion that the case is still open is a cynical fiction.
Indeed, after Judge Zmuda’s ruling, Mrs. Bates let the truth slip out: “It’s time to put it to rest,” she said.
Yes, it is.
If the evidence exonerates Brown, as it seems to, given his release from prison and the state’s declining to re-try him, he should be officially exonerated and compensated for false imprisonment. If there is sufficient evidence that he participated in some way in the murder, he should be re-tried. The limbo Brown has lived in since his release in 2001 is not justice, but the opposite of justice.
Mrs. Bates is a fine public servant. Judge Zmuda is an outstanding one, who had no choice when this mess of a case came to him — the statute of limitations had expired. But who will be responsible for the failures of the justice system to do even minimal justice in this case?
For no one is serving a prison sentence for the murder of Bobbie Russell.
Mrs. Bates has acted as she has in this case, first, because she did not want to disrespect Ms. Russell’s son. Danny Brown’s conviction hinged entirely on his eyewitness testimony — what a frightened little boy might have seen in the dark on a horrendous night.
DNA trumps partial and confused eyewitness testimony, because such testimony, in general and certainly in this case, is highly subject to the tricks the mind plays on all of us.
But Mrs. Bates has also, always, somehow, vaguely doubted Brown’s total innocence. Was he there that night? Did he know Sherman Preston? Was he an accomplice in some way or to some degree?
She is entitled to those doubts.
But she is not entitled to hold the law, or a human life, hostage to them.
She chose not to retry Danny Brown because she knew she could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that he murdered Ms. Russell.
The fact is, a new trial would have been the honorable thing. Mrs. Bates would have had her answer. Danny Brown would have had his. The law would have been respected — run its course.
Something should have happened in 2001. Some person or persons should have been tried.
And Mrs. Bates has had 17 additional years, plus, to solve the murder and retry the case. If it is now truly time to “put it to rest,” and there is to be no new indictment or trial, of anyone, then she should truly and officially close the case. Brown should receive official exoneration and compensation. Under the American standard of justice he is innocent, no matter what doubts Mrs. Bates retains.
Danny Brown has now sued three times for wrongful imprisonment and three times been spurned by the courts on technical grounds. And yet by any reasonable, logical or intellectually honest reading, he was wrongfully imprisoned, for almost 20 years. And he has been kept in a legal and psychological no man’s land for the better part of another 20 years. Everyone meant well but the law was mocked. This dishonors, it does not honor, the memory of Bobbie Russell.
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