The State of North Carolina vs. Faye Brown.
Michael H. Fox

When examining a criminal case for the possibility of wrongful arrest or conviction, the experienced criminologist will notice a variety of red flags which signal misfeasance. Typically, these include jaded judges, overzealous prosecutors, jail house snitches, ethnic prejudice, refused plea bargains, re-arrests of suspects who have previously been found innocent, family of murder victims who did not cry properly, survivors of fatal fires, and many more. Some of these factors are easily observable, some are minute and difficult to see. In terms of size, salience and audacity, one factor stands out among all the rest. It is more than a factor, it is a place: North Carolina.

North Carolina may well be the wrongful conviction capital of the world. Cases abound left and right. It sentenced Jeffrey Macdonald, a young and promising marine physician to life imprisonment in 1982, for murdering his family. Originally found innocent, Macdonald was retried, found guilty, and is currently serving a life term, despite the existence of a confession from another early suspect in the case.

And then there is the case of Darryl Hunt. Hunt, a black man convicted for the murder of a young white woman-- despite an alibi and despite the lack of any evidence. The prosecutor simply enraged the jury and in 1984, Hunt was sentenced to death. And even after DNA evidence excluded Hunt as the culprit, the judge refused a retrial because "the new evidence would have had little or no influence on the jury." Hunt was exonerated but only after the DNA lead the authorities to the real murderer.

The list goes on. Other notable cases include exoneree Ronald Cotton, wrongfully convicted of rape, and Patsy Kelly Jarrett. Jarrett, a North Carolina native, was wrongfully convicted in New York.

How to Escape Death

One of the most legendary cases from the state, and a name that is permanently etched onto American legal annals is that of Henry Alford, founder of the Alford Plea. Alford, was indicted in 1963 on charges of first-degree murder, and insisted he was innocent. But strong evidence spoke otherwise-- witnesses who heard him brag before and after the killing. Alford's lawyers foresaw a guilty verdict, and encouraged a plea to second-degree murder. He never admitted guilt, but accepted the plea in order to escape the death penalty. Hundreds of others have accepted "Alford Pleas" since that time. See North Carolina v. Alford (1970) 400 US 25

Guilty or not, Alford understood his adversary quite well. In terms of capital punishment, North Carolina is a kill happy state. It was the very last state to abandon public hangings, perhaps grudgingly so. Vestiges of this gruesome spectacle are viewable at

Combating Furman, Continuing Executions

In 1972, the US Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) nullified the procedures used for judging capital cases. At the time, while hardly one of the more populous states, North Carolina had 116 death penalty inmates--the highest number in the nation. In an attempt to lead the nation back to executions, the state dashed out of the starting block and concocted a system to pass the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. To comply with evolving standards of decency--the tide of the times-- the State introduced a radical degree of fairness into a crooked system. Instead of leaving the punishment up to the jury, and having to deal with mitigating evidence and other burdens during the penalty phase, everyone found guilty of first degree murder would be executed. Justice would be distributed equally and fairly to all!

The Supreme Court was hardly placated. In the 1976 case of Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976), it found the new system , violent, morbid and discriminatory, and declared it unconstitutional. North Carolina became the first state to have its death penalty overturned by the nation's highest court. The 120 inmates awaiting execution had their sentences vacated. Many received new trials, and none were executed.

The decision was a smack in the face. An embarrassment felt deeply in the state legislature and the halls of law and order. The confederacy had once again been defeated by the powers up north.

Losing the Battle but not the War

All was not lost. A battle maybe, but not the war. The state wanted to regain pride, stand tall among its southern execution-hungry neighbors, and recapture the faith of the electorate.

This wish came true. It came wrapped in a package named "Velma Barfield." Barfield gained notoriety across the country as the "Death Row Granny." A white woman with a string of poisonings to her name, Barfield was the right hamster to feed the hungry cats. Sentenced to death, she highlighted the statistics books as a "first" in two distinct categories. The first woman executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and the first since the last woman was executed way back in 1962.

Sacrificing a female defendant, particularly a white one, on the altar of law and order brings many dividends. As the elected priests of punishment and social control are mostly white, and the fodder are mostly black, the cries of "discrimination" and "arbitrariness" are easily silenced. "See how fair we are," the argument goes, "we even kill our own."

Faye Brown

The dividends were reinvested. In the gloomy four year hiatus between Fuhrman and Woodson, a 22 year old woman named Faye Brown got into trouble with the law. On September 2, 1975, she and two cohorts robbed a bank in Jamesville, North Carolina.

Brown seemed to be an unlikely candidate to enter the world of crime. Recognized by teachers as having extraordinary intelligence and a will to study, she was valedictorian of her junior high class. Her future looked very bright.

Bussing, as a means of integration, was a contentious social issue of the times. Instead of entering her local high school, Brown was bussed to a predominantly white high school. The proud young woman rebelled against the move. She stopped studying, began to run with a bad crowd, and experimented with drugs.

Dropping out of school a short time later, Brown learned how to survive on the streets. She made acquaintance with Joseph Seabourne and Frankie Squire. Together, the three hatched a plan to rob a bank. They donned masks, entered with guns, threatened the clerks, and made off with $6000.

The trio did not get far. Several miles from the scene, they were pulled over for a routine traffic violation. A shot was fired and 44 year old officer Tom Davis, a respected veteran of the force, lay dead on the street. The three later surrendered after being spotted in a soy bean field by a police helicopter.

At the trial, all pleaded guilty to bank robbery. Seabourne took the blame for the shooting, "the shots were fired by me." One white policeman was killed and three black defendants were sentenced to death.

Guilt by Association

How do three people get sentenced to death for one murder? A police detective who investigated the case offered the familiar adage: "If you run with the pack, you are responsible for the kill. That's a fact of law."

A fact of law? Hardly. No such law exists in the Criminal Code of North Carolina or for that matter, anywhere in federal law. But the practice of punishing women for the crimes of men is widespread in the USA.

During her early days in prison, Brown remained angry and rebellious. Her death sentence was overturned with the Woodson decision, but this brought only minor comfort. Drugs were available in prison and she used freely. She was reprimanded for many infractions.

Then one day, everything changed. "My mother died in 1991. I was shaken. I stopped using drugs, started to study hard, and reflected on my actions."

Faye also feels remorse for Tom Davis and his family. "I did not, and could never fire the shot to kill another human being. Still, I feel anguish for participating in the crime that lead to Trooper Davis's death. "

Punishment: How much is Enough

This case raises many questions. Particularly, how much punishment is enough? Brown is now in her 34th year behind bars. "Faye should be punished for what she did," says her sister, "but 34 years in prison for a crime committed at age 22 year is too long."

Fortunately, some good things have happened. Recently, she has been allowed to leave prison for short furloughs twice a month. She also receives two six-hour passes out with family members once a month. Yet, despite her repentance and self transformation, Brown is still a prisoner. She is incarcerated for a crime which she did not do.

While Brown's fate has taken a turn for the better, the state of North Carolina adamantly perseveres the execution of its citizens. According to a study by the Independent Weekly, in the past 7 years, North Carolina spent at least $36 million dollars seeking the death penalty above and beyond what it cost to pursue life without parole. And this is just on defense costs.

Faye Brown did run with a pack, but she did not kill. She was originally sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit. It is high time she be granted clemency and allowed to continue all the good things she has done in prison, outside the walls.

Michael H. Fox is director of the Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center.



Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo. (2009:)

Case of a Lifetime. Abbe Smith. (2008: Palgrave/MacMillan)

Long Time Coming: My Life and the Darryl Hunt Lesson Jo Anne North Goetz and Leigh Somerville Mcmillan (2007: Authorhouse)

Trials of Darryl Hunt. (2007 Velocity /Thinkfilms)

Thirty Year Quest for Justice--U.S. v. Jeffrey R. MacDonald Justice Denied #42. Page 3, Winter 2009

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The high cost of the death penalty June 24, 2009

Faye Brown - Women on Death Row