By Kathy Fleming
White, black. Rich, poor. Free, not free. It’s a plot that could have come right out of a John Grisham bestseller. Instead it came from ABC’s “20/20” television show, and, luckily for the protagonist, a fledgling Jacksonville lawyer was watching.
November 3, 2006:
Charlie Douglas (JD 06) got home earlier than usual that Friday night. He always eats out at the end of the long work week, and this Friday was no exception. He dropped down on the couch just in time to catch the tail end of ABC’s “20/20” television show. It wasn’t a show he would normally watch, but one segment shook the tiredness right out of his bones.
Two young men go through the same Dallas, Texas, courtroom of Judge Keith Dean at about the same time. John Wood, a white young man, is the son of one of the most prominent pastors in Texas. A “paragon of privilege,” he is called. After having sex with a male prostitute at his home, Wood argued about the $30 payment and shot the prostitute in the back.
He obtained the finest legal representation, pleaded guilty, had a one-day trial at which the most powerful pastor in Texas spoke on his behalf and received 10 years probation.
While on probation, the young man was caught repeatedly with cocaine and other serious offenses. A witness said “Daddy fixed everything.”
Judge Dean gave him a mere slap on the wrist … a “post card probation” requiring him to confirm his address once a year. He served his 10 years probation and his record was expunged.
Then there is the case of Tyrone Brown, a poor black 16-year-old who, with a friend, waited outside a Bennigan’s restaurant one night and robbed a man at gunpoint. Brown gave the victim his wallet back after removing the $2 it contained.
It was a first offense, and like the other young man, Brown pleaded guilty and received 10 years probation.
However, when Brown tested positive for smoking marijuana during a probation check, he didn’t get the usual treatment of having the minor offense noted in his records. Judge Keith Dean sentenced him to life in prison.
“Good luck, Mr. Brown,” Judge Dean told the stunned young man.
Tyrone Brown spent the next 16 years in a Texas prison.
From his Jacksonville town home, 24-year-old Charlie Douglas watched the broadcast in disbelief.
“Although robbery is a serious crime and I certainly don’t condone that behavior, I was shocked at the disparity in the two sentences,” he said. “I immediately went to the computer, found the ABC message board and met others who were as equally outraged as I was over Mr. Brown’s unjust sentence.”
November 4, 2006:
Douglas drove to Orlando early the next morning to attend the wedding of two UF Law classmates, but spent the rest of the day holed up in his hotel room, e-mailing back and forth with angry viewers on the message board.
Before the day was over, Douglas found himself at the forefront of a grassroots advocacy group resolved to accomplish just one goal: bring Mr. Brown home.
November 5, 2006:
The grassroots campaign officially commenced.
“A medical student in California took care of the technical issues of formatting our Web site named SaveMrBrown.com, and I started researching Texas law to see what legal avenues were available to free Mr. Brown,” Douglas said.
A commutation of sentence was the only option, but in Texas, that’s not an overnight project.
“We couldn’t simply walk into the governor’s office and politely ask that he review the documents and sign the necessary paperwork,” Douglas said
The Texas Constitution and Administrative Code requires a three-step process.
The first step is to secure the signatures of the local officials — the sentencing judge, district attorney and sheriff. If two of those three people recommend a commutation, the second step is to secure the votes of a majority of the members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The third and final step is the governor.
After learning what was ahead and loosely formulating a plan of action, Douglas called Nora Brown, Tyrone’s mother, and introduced himself. He told her the process would be long, but promised he would not abandon her or her son.
“I was in it for the long haul, whether it took four months or four years. I wasn’t going anywhere until Tyrone was home,” he told her that day. “I later learned that several people had made similar promises throughout the 17 years her son was in prison, so now looking back I’m a bit surprised she didn’t hang up the phone immediately.”
Douglas knew exactly what to do and had, in fact, been leading groups with passionate causes since high school. In 2000 he was named Florida’s Youth Advocate of the Year for his work combating tobacco company tactics as part of the “Truth” campaign run by Florida teenagers. As a result of that success, the American Legacy Foundation invited him to serve as a national spokesperson, enabling him to maintain his quest against “big tobacco.” He even formed a company, called Revolution Consulting, with three other young advocates while in college that took him all over the country to teach young people how to be advocates for change.
The son of the now retired Putnam County sheriff, Douglas realized trial law was his calling when he attended a personal injury trial as part of a business law class he took as an undergraduate business major at UF. From there it was a short trip over to the law school, where he was elected editor-in-chief of the Florida Law Review and graduated second in his class of 211.
This time the stakes were higher. He knew the next step in this fight was to get the attention of the decision makers in Texas, so he and dozens of other campaign members began sending letters — hundreds of them — to local and state officials in Texas. He also called Brown’s mother at least three times a week to keep her updated with all the information he received. Later on he called her every day, and she began to think of Douglas, a man she had never met eye-to-eye, as another son.
November 30, 2006:
District Attorney Bill Hill seemed like the logical place to start. The team, which had swelled in number to the hundreds, began sending letters to Hill pleading for him to recommend to Gov. Rick Perry that Brown be released.
“I called the president of the Dallas NAACP, Bob Lydia, and asked if he could help us find people in Dallas who knew Bill Hill and who would be willing to talk to him on Tyrone’s behalf,” Douglas said. “Within days of our initial battle, Mr. Hill wrote a letter to Gov. Perry recommending Tyrone’s release.”
In those early days, Lydia and Douglas developed a close working relationship, strategizing about the campaign nearly every other day.
So they waited some more.
Like those in Texas, Douglas found that many people he knew in his own state weren’t taking his efforts seriously.
“People were skeptical,” he said. “I’m a brand new attorney and some thought I was being idealistic that I was chasing windmills.”
Douglas, who even looks idealistic and has the polite manner of Mayberry’s Opie Taylor, would not be deterred.
Careful to work on the crusade during his own time while balancing a heavy case load at work, Douglas was relieved when the people whose opinion most count in the life of a young lawyer — his employers at Harrell & Harrell, Renee (JD 95) and Bill (JD 74) Harrell — became believers early on. They picked up all his costs and encouraged him to keep going.
“The firm first became involved when Charlie needed help to get out to Texas and back Christmas Eve. At that time it appeared he could get the governor’s signature and Mr. Brown would be able to go home Christmas day. Until that time, Charlie worked on his own and sought no recognition for his time and sacrifice,” said Bill Harrell. “We hired Charlie for the type of person we thought he was and this confirmed that we were right.”
December 11, 2006:
The campaign turned to Judge Dean, the same judge who had sentenced Tyrone Brown 16 years earlier. For several weeks the group sent letters and faxes asking him to join the district attorney in recommending that Brown be released. Exactly two weeks before Christmas, Judge Dean wrote Gov. Perry and asked for Tyrone’s release.
“That day represented a monumental triumph because without his signature we could not have progressed to the second step, which was the Parole Board,” Douglas said.
To ensure Brown knew everything that was happening outside his prison walls, Douglas sent him several letters each week to keep him up-to-date. Brown responded with heartfelt letters of appreciation.
“When it became apparent that the governor’s office was not taking our campaign seriously, we decided to recruit the help of State Rep. Helen Giddings, who represents Dallas, Tyrone’s home town. Rep. Giddings agreed to meet with the governor on Tyrone’s behalf, but still nothing happened,” he said.
The “Save Mr. Brown” team continued to maintain their weekly conference calls to synthesize what had happened the week before and set goals for the upcoming week. As the Christmas holidays drew nearer, they raised money to send presents to Brown’s mother and daughter on his behalf.
“I began calling and e-mailing the governor’s press secretary and deputy general counsel every other day it seemed, but both sealed their lips and wouldn’t talk,” Douglas said.
The letters continued to flood the governor’s office, Douglas continued to make phone calls, and Rep. Giddings continued to push the governor to action.
January 19, 2007:
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was the next stop on the road to freedom. They received Tyrone’s commutationof-sentence application on Dec. 29, 2006, and the “Save Mr. Brown” team reinvigorated the campaign by sending countless e-mails, faxes and letters to each of the seven board members.The board evaluated Mr. Brown’s application and voted five to two to recommend a commutation-of-sentence.
January 22, 2007:
Texas Gov. Perry received Tyrone’s commutation application. The campaign group, which had grown to more than 1,000 members, waited for days. Then weeks and months.
“Every single day our team was steadily flooding the governor’s office with e-mails, faxes, letters and phone calls,” Douglas said. “Still, nothing happened.”
Meanwhile, Douglas established the Tyrone Brown Freedom Fund to raise money for Brown while he was in prison and after his release.
March 9, 2007:
Gov. Perry finally signed an executive proclamation to release Tyrone from prison. Instead of a full commutation, Brown received a conditional pardon, but it was great news.
March 15, 2007:
Early Thursday morning a group of about 20 family members, reporters and Douglas boarded a bus in Dallas to make the three-hour drive south to Huntsville. They arrived at the prison at 9:45 a.m.Tyrone’s mom was on the verge of collapsing, and other family members were sobbing and shaking.
“At exactly 10 a.m., through the glass doors I could see walking down the hallway a tall black man with a big smile. As he walked through those doors, I recognized his face, and I knew it was him,” Douglas said.
After living in a prison cell for 16 years and 10 months, inmate number 554317 walked out of those penitentiary doors and became Citizen Tyrone Dwayne Brown.
“The whole experience was surreal,” Douglas remembers. “I couldn’t help but recognize that I was standing in front of the building where Texas houses its execution chamber, and I thought that of all of the lives taken inside those walls, Tyrone’s life would not be among them.”
As the celebration continued and the group returned home to Dallas, Brown gave numerous media interviews and caught up with family, neighbors and friends who stopped by to offer congratulatory hugs. Finally, he made his way to the dining room table where his mom served up a southern-style feast. An impromptu neighborhood block party went on late into the
While his release marked the end of one phase of the campaign, it also ushered in the beginning of another.
“When Tyrone was in prison, I promised him we would not abandon him after his release. We would meet his needs and help ensure that his re-entry was a success,” Douglas said.
Douglas remained in Dallas a few extra days to help Brown enroll in parole classes, reconcile outstanding court costs from 16 years earlier and shop for new clothes. It took many calls to department store headquarters before Douglas found a store willing to help.
Stein Mart’s Julia Taylor (whose husband John Taylor, JD 70, is a UF law school alumnus) agreed and made the necessary arrangements with one of their Dallas stores.
The Save Mr. Brown campaign also assisted in finding Tyrone a new job in maintenance at a Dallas church and arranged for him and his family to see his favorite sports teams … the Mavericks, Cowboys and Rangers. One couple in California donated $5,000 for a used vehicle.
Now, many months later, Brown, 34, has earned his GED and visits juvenile detention facilities to counsel and motivate kids at risk. He plans to write a book about his experiences and is the focus of a documentary being filmed for television or the big screen.
“Tyrone is a good-hearted man who holds no bitterness for the judge who sentenced him or the government that incarcerated him,” Douglas said. “He is looking forward to making the best out of the years he has ahead.”
Douglas continues to be part of Brown’s daily life and plans to bring him to Jacksonville soon so he can see the ocean and go out in a boat for the first time.
“I think of Charlie like a little brother,” Brown said. “He is kind and has a big heart. He was willing to jump on my case and once we started, he was there non-stop to the very end. Still is. I was just lucky he was there.”
For Douglas, those four and a half months of daily battles just confirmed his belief that equal justice under the law is an ideal, not a truth, that can be achieved with persistence.
“I learned that advocacy works,” he said. “If people are willing to rise up, passionately fight for a cause and refuse to be discouraged by bureaucracies, change will happen.”