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Joyce Ann Brown, exonerated after nearly a decade in prison, dies at 68

🕐 5 min read

“I sleep 14, 15, 16 hours straight,” Joyce Ann Brown said on national television in 1989 from behind a Plexiglass window, describing one of the few comforts in her life. She was a prison inmate, and would remain one until nine years, five months and 24 days had gone by.

“I don’t have to dream about a crime,” she continued in an interview with the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” that drew widespread attention. “I don’t have to dream about seeing a man shot down like a dog,” she said, “because I wasn’t there.”

In 1980, Brown was convicted as an accomplice in the armed robbery of a Dallas furrier. One of the shopkeepers was murdered. Nearly a decade later, her conviction was overturned in what was widely recognized as an extraordinary case of mistaken identity.

Brown, 68, died June 13 at a hospital in Dallas. The cause was a heart attack, according to the report of her death published in the Dallas Morning News. For the past 25 years, she had been an advocate for prisoners, former prisoners and the wrongfully accused.

She was born Joyce Ann Spencer on Feb. 12, 1947, in Wills Point, Texas, and grew up in what was described as a poor community in Dallas. She acquired the surname Brown by marriage — perhaps the first in an improbable series of events that helped lead to her conviction.

To support her children and large family, Brown made money as a call girl, according to published accounts of her life. An arrest for prostitution entered her name and profile into law enforcement records.

Brown later found employment as an assistant at a Dallas furrier called Koslow’s. She was on duty May 6, 1980 — but clocked out for a reported 36-minute lunch break — when a holdup took place at another furrier, Fine Furs by Rubin, about three miles away.

The two assailants, like Brown, were African American women. One wore pink pants; another wore a blue jogging outfit, according to an account on the website of Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. The women ordered the shopkeepers, Holocaust survivors Rubin and Ala Danziger, to fill bags with the shop’s expensive goods.

Rubin Danziger was fatally shot in the confrontation. Ala Danziger survived by telling the intruders that she had cancer and had only weeks to live.

“We’ll just let you suffer,” was the reply.

The assailants left the scene in a 1980 Datsun. The vehicle, it was determined, was a rental car loaned to one Joyce Ann Brown — a detail later published in a local newspaper. When Brown saw her name in print, she reported to the police in an effort to resolve any confusion. Instead, she was arrested.

Inconsistencies quickly surfaced. The person who had rented the Datsun was Joyce Ann Brown of Denver, not Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas. The Colorado woman later said that she had given the car to a friend, a Renee (or Rene) Taylor, and did not know where she had gone.

In Taylor’s apartment, according to the Northwestern University account, the police found furs from the Danziger store, a pair of pink pants and a gun. Ala Danziger, presented with a photograph of Brown, identified her as the murderer’s accomplice.

At trial, the state called a jailhouse informant, Martha Jean Bruce, who had been incarcerated with Brown and claimed that she had confessed to the crime.

At the core of Brown’s defense was her alibi. To participate in the crime, she would have needed to change clothes, drive to the Danziger furrier, conduct the holdup, put her work attire back on and return to the office before her lunch break ended. Colleagues testified on her behalf.

The jury, which had no black members, convicted Brown despite a lack of physical evidence incriminating her. The jury did not know that Bruce, the informant, had previously been convicted of providing a false statement to the police and would later receive a reduction in her own sentence.

Meanwhile, Taylor was apprehended in 1981 and pleaded guilty to Rubin Danziger’s murder. She denied that Brown was her accomplice. Both women passed polygraph tests. But still Brown remained in prison.

During Brown’s incarceration, her daughter grew up. She missed the birth of a granddaughter. A stepson committed suicide.

“I don’t know if me being in prison had anything to do with that,” Brown told “60 Minutes,” “but I believe, and I have to live with it, that had I been home, I don’t think he would have been dead. I know he wouldn’t have.”

Brown continued to profess her innocence and received help from advocates including Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

In November 1989, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her conviction, finding that prosecutors “either negligently or inadvertently” failed to reveal the jailhouse informant’s prior conviction of lying to police.

“The day that I walked out of prison, I didn’t want to get too happy. . . . I kept thinking that perhaps it was a nightmare,” she told “60 Minutes.” “Am I going to wake up tomorrow and none of this happened?”

In 1994, her criminal record stemming from the holdup was expunged. Brown, who had obtained a degree in prison, found employment with a Dallas county commissioner. She also led Mothers (Fathers) for the Advancement of Social Systems, a nonprofit organization, and released a memoir, “Joyce Ann Brown: Justice Denied” (1990), co-written with Jay Gaines.

A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.

Years after her release, Brown said in a subsequent interview on “60 Minutes” that she kept a log of her whereabouts in case she would ever be accused of another crime. That way, she explained, “I can go back and say, ‘No, this is where I was,’ because the system taught me to do this,” she said. “Because I don’t ever want to be caught in that position again.”

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