In his book, “Grace And Justice On Death Row,” Brian W. Stolarz recalls his experiences helping a young Black man prove his innocence after being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.
With the flair of a polished writer, Stolarz provides a compelling and insightful take on America’s flawed judicial system and its dreadful impact on the lives of minorities.
In 2003, Alfred Dewayne Brown was found guilty of shooting and killing a police officer in Livingston, Tex. On that day, the judicial system, yet again, demonstrated that being Black comes with a burden of fighting suspicion even when there’s evidence that proves your innocence.
Stolarz writes: “…In and out of the precinct houses, holding cells, and courtrooms I developed a more than functional ‘bullshit meter’ about people accused of breaking the law. I can usually spot a lie or a liar better than a polygraph operator. After one look, I had absolutely no doubt that Alfred Dewayne Brown had not committed the heinous crime for which he had been convicted and for which Texas was going to kill him.”
After a long and drawn out trial, Brown’s defense team proved to be severely inadequate, failing to uncover enough evidence to clear him of any wrongdoing. Making matters worse, they spent more time trying to convince him to accept a plea deal instead of using their resources to build a sufficient defense.
This ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of an innocent man, who spent 15 years behind bars before he was finally exonerated of murder and released from prison.
Lies, concealed evidence, fabricated testimonies, false witness statements, collusion, and outright corruption were all reasons why Brown was ultimately charged. This decision has since been categorized by legal experts as a “gross miscarriage of justice,” a “mockery of due process,” and a “blatant dismissal of proper courtroom etiquette.”
In the early chapters, Stolarz writes: “He [Brown] was an African American man with limited intellectual functioning from a dirt-poor, marginalized family in Houston who didn’t kill anybody, but was fingered by shady characters and the Houston Police Department for killing a White police officer in a very high-profile case.”
The book opens with a detailed description of the crime that turned Brown’s life upside down. Three armed men plotted to rob an ACE Cash Express store, but their plan was foiled when the clerk secretly alerted police. She was eventually killed and the first officer to arrive also died of a fatal gunshot wound.
The assailants shared an affiliation with Brown, who was—according to his testimony—fast asleep when the robbery occurred. Two were eventually captured and interrogated. The third man escaped police custody despite being responsible for murdering Officer Charles Clark. Serving a life sentence would have eliminated his chance of playing college football on the athletic scholarship he earned in high school. To protect their buddy’s future, the other perpetrators agreed, in secret, to pin the murder on Brown.
Stolarz writes: “People were saying they heard Brown was involved in the shootings at the check-cashing store. Dewayne could not believe it and Brown decided to go to the police station to tell them he did not do anything like that. On the way there, a police officer spotted him and pulled his car over. Dewayne was arrested.
“According to police reports, Dewayne cried when he was interrogated. They put him in a lineup for various witnesses to come forward and try to make a positive identification. None of the eyewitness indentifications were very strong.”
During the subsequent trail, Brown’s fate was ultimately decided by the unscrupulous tactics of veteran homicide prosecutor Daniel Rizzo (the antagonist). He unequivocally believed Brown was guilty, and despite the absence of probable cause, Rizzo used every dirty trick in his arsenal to ensure a conviction. His most flagrant transgression was hiding phone records that would’ve proven Brown was at home when the robbery transpired.
“The evidence was Southwestern Bell’s record of calls made from [a] landline phone number that day,” Stolarz reveals. “The record—which would not surface until 2013, was found in a Houston Police detective’s home garage.”
The rest of the book navigates through Stolarz’s tireless effort to prevent the execution of an innocent man. In his quest for justice, he experiences numerous setbacks and contemplates giving up. But the bond he develops with Dewayne (and fear of his unlawful demise) serves as a source of motivation for Stolarz and his defense team.
In the end, after spending nearly two decades behind bars, Brown returned home.
“I held his head in my hands. ‘Live your life,” I said. ‘Live it.’ He nodded. I then paused and said, “I love you.”