By Michael Kruse, Times staff writer
A black man named Joseph Green Brown was accused of raping and killing a white woman in 1973 in a Tampa clothing store called the Just Kids Shoppe. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Fitted for a burial suit. Granted a stay some 15 hours before his scheduled electrocution in 1983. He was set free in 1987.
In the years since then, Brown worked as a truck driver, a homeless shelter cook, a convenience store clerk. He got married. He moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, N.C. He talked to church groups about staying out of trouble.
Last week he was picked up by police in his hometown of Charleston, S.C., after his wife was found dead in their apartment in Charlotte.
He’s 62. He has a court hearing today. He’s facing a first-degree murder charge.
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In July 1973, Earlene Treva Barksdale was found in her shop dead on the floor, naked with a bullet hole in her head.
Later the same afternoon, Brown, who was 23 at the time and had no criminal record, flagged down a Tampa police car. He wanted to confess to a robbery. He told officers he and another man broke into a Holiday Inn by the airport and robbed a woman and that he had started to molest her before stopping. The other man’s name, he said, was Ronald Floyd.
A detective thought there might be a link between the two crimes. He asked Brown and Floyd if they knew anything about the Barksdale murder. Brown said no. Floyd, eventually, said yes — that he only drove, that Brown fired the shot.
The murder trial was “the biggest thing going on,” attorney J. Michael Shea said this week. He was Brown’s court-appointed attorney. “All the news. All the television stations.”
The prosecutor, Robert Bonanno, had Floyd’s testimony, but that was about it. No fingerprints. No matching blood. The bullet that killed Barksdale couldn’t have come from the gun Brown had used in the hotel robbery, but Bonanno told the jury it was the murder weapon.
Shea asked Floyd at the trial if he was getting a deal from prosecutors for his testimony against Brown. Floyd said no.
The all-white jury quickly found Brown guilty. Brown got 20 years for the robbery on top of his death sentence. Floyd got probation.
Shea still thinks Brown was innocent.
“As far as I’m concerned, he was always guilty,” said Bonanno, who became a judge and was the subject of a series of ethics investigations before resigning in 2001 to stop another.
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Floyd got in trouble shortly after the trial and went to prison. He told Shea in 1975 in a sworn statement that his testimony was false and that he had lied in exchange for “favorable consideration” from the prosecution.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund took over Brown’s appeal in 1981. Florida Gov. Bob Graham rejected Brown’s plea for clemency in 1982. He signed his death warrant in 1983.
Brown kicked and screamed when they came to measure him for that suit. He was asked what he wanted for his last meal. He said he wanted nothing.
The stay came the night before he was to be killed.
The federal appeal court overturned his conviction because Bonanno had “knowingly used false testimony” — a reference to Floyd’s lie about his deal with prosecutors.
Hillsborough County prosecutors determined there was insufficient evidence to retry Brown. Brown was mopping the floor at the county jail when he got a call saying he was free. He was released with the 75 cents from his personal prison account.
“I can’t tell you he was wrongly imprisoned,” said Henry Lavandera, the prosecutor who dropped the case. “All I can tell you is that I couldn’t prove that he was guilty.”
In 1999, Brown, who started going by Shabaka WaQlimi, Swahili for “uncompromising,” told aTimes reporter he was still bitter.
“You’ve got to realize, you put a man in a cage and treat him like a dog, talk to him like a dog, feed him like a dog … there’s gonna come a time he wants to bite like a dog.”
Ten years after that, in a talk with a group of students, one of them asked if he was “healed.”
“I’m healed enough to control those emotions, but I still possess those emotions,” he said. “When I talk to audiences … I ask them to pray for me. And the reason why I ask them to pray for me is that I know that one day all these emotions is gonna swell up. And I ask people to pray for Shabaka that when that day come I be by myself.”
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Charlotte police received calls almost two weeks ago from people who were worried about Mamie Caldwell Brown. They went to check on her.
Police say she suffered unspecified trauma.
The retired secretary was 71.
At a hearing last week, Joseph Green Brown had on handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit. He took a quick look at his wife’s family and then turned away.
• • •
Shea kept in touch with Brown. He wrote a book about Brown. He exchanged Christmas cards with Brown. He knew his wife. He talked with them on the phone, at least a couple times a year. He said they’d been having a tough time financially.
“I think it’s sad,” Shea said, “if Joe actually killed his wife. That’s very sad. He should pay the consequences if he did it.
“I don’t know the circumstances,” he added. “Probably only two people do. And one of them is dead.”
News researchers Carolyn Edds, Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report, which used information from the Los Angeles Times, the Charlotte Observer and the Associated Press. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.