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Paul Browning

Other Clark County, Nevada exonerations
At about 4:20 p.m. on November 8, 1985, 60-year-old Hugo Elsen was robbed and stabbed to death in his jewelry store in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Elsen’s wife, Josy, was resting in a back room when she heard the sounds of a struggle and came out to see her husband on the floor with a black man kneeling over him with a knife in his hand. She turned and ran next door to summon police.

Police were there in minutes, followed by paramedics. Elsen had been stabbed several times. His heart had been punctured three times.

The initial description broadcast on police radio was of a black man with shoulder-length Jheri-curl style hair, wearing a blue cap.

Not long after, police officer David Radcliffe was approached by Randall Wolfe, a man who had worked as an informant for Radcliffe in the past. Wolfe said that he had come from the Normandie Motel, just a few blocks away, and that 29-year-old Paul Browning was in Wolfe’s room with jewelry. Browning, according to Wolfe, admitted that he had killed someone.

When police burst into room 15 at the motel, they found Browning, who was shirtless, and several pieces of jewelry, some of which still had tags attached showing they came from Elsen’s jewelry store. Browning was living in room 12 at the motel.

Police confiscated the jewelry as well as a tan jacket. Wolfe’s wife, Vanessa, led police to a folding knife in a sheath that was under the stairs leading to the ground floor where she said she hid it at Browning’s direction. She also showed police where she had discarded a blue cap that she said belonged to Browning.

Police handcuffed Browning, whose hair was in an Afro, and drove him to the scene. After first parking near the store, police took Browning to a nearby restaurant. There, three witnesses, Debra Coe, Charles Woods, and William Hoffman individually looked at Browning.

Woods, who owned another jewelry store on the same street as Elsen’s store, identified Browning as the man he saw jogging down the street toward him from the direction of Elsen’s store shortly before police arrived.

Coe was in the store next door to Elsen’s and had called police after Elsen’s wife came to report the crime. Coe said she was about 80 percent sure that Browning was the man she saw go past her store just after Josy Elsen came to her door. Coe also admitted that she thought all black men looked alike.

Hoffman, who had been talking to Woods when the man jogged by, was unable to identify Browning as the jogger. He said that Browning’s hair did not have a squashed down look that would have come from wearing a cap.

Browning, still shirtless, was taken to a police station and handcuffed to a bar in an unlocked room. After a while—he would later say he was unable to bear the cold of the air-conditioning—Browning opened the handcuff using the tine of a hair pick that was in his pocket. However, as he approached the exit of the station, one of the officers who had arrested him was coming in and took him into custody again.

Browning was charged with capital murder, burglary, armed robbery, and escape.

The prosecution’s theory was that Browning’s girlfriend, Marcia Gaylord, who was a sex worker, had been arrested, and that Browning committed the robbery so he could sell the jewelry to bail Gaylord out. The defense contended that a Cuban man had committed the crime and that Browning was lured into the Wolfes’ room so they could call the police and frame him for the crime.

On February 28, 1986, Clark County District Court Judge Joseph Pavlikowski granted chief deputy district attorney Dan Seaton a 30-day continuance after Seaton claimed he was unable to contact Wolfe and Wolfe’s wife, Vanessa, who were the state’s most critical witnesses.

Years later, that claim was disproved. Browning’s lawyers eventually discovered that just a week earlier, the Wolfes had testified as prosecution witnesses in a separate trial in Pavlikowski’s courtroom against a defendant named Gerald Morrell

That became significant for two reasons.

In that trial, the Wolfes testified that Morrell had robbed them. Morrell claimed that the Wolfes were falsely accusing him to cover up the fact they had robbed him with a knife, just a week before Elsen was robbed and killed. The jury believed Morrell and acquitted him.

Perhaps more important, however, the delay in Browning’s trial caused his lawyer to lose contact with Browning’s girlfriend, Gaylord. Gaylord was prepared to testify that a few days before the robbery and murder, she and Browning had been in Elsen’s store and Browning had put his hands on the jewelry counter. In addition, she had told Browning’s lawyer that she had been released from jail on the afternoon of the crime and planned to meet Browning.

That testimony was an explanation for why a fingerprint and partial palmprint linked to Browning were in Elsen’s store and it undermined the prosecution’s claim that Browning committed the crime to sell the jewelry so he could post bail for Gaylord. Despite her absence, Browning’s lawyer never sought the jail records to show Gaylord had been released before the crime occurred.

When Browning went to trial in November 1996, Gaylord was nowhere to be found.

The prosecution’s first witness was Coe, who now said she was 100 percent sure that Browning was the man she saw pass by her window. Although she said earlier that the man was wearing a blue jacket, blue cap, and tennis shoes, she now testified he was wearing a blue cap and tan jacket. Woods testified and identified Browning as the man who jogged past him just moments after the crime.

Dr. Giles Green, a forensic pathologist, had conducted the autopsy. He testified that he believed a knife had perforated Elsen’s heart three times—that it was pushed and pulled without being withdrawn completely and each time it was pushed, it pierced another part of Elsen’s heart causing a wound that was impossible to repair.

Green was asked if the knife recovered under the stairs, which did not have any blood on it, could have made the wound. “The wound that we have in the body of Mr. Elsen could have been made by this or any other knife with that size and shape,” Green said. “There is nothing about that knife that tells me that that knife made those wounds. The wound could have been made by that knife or one that I happen to own that is very much like it.”

Josy Elsen testified and identified Browning as the man she saw stabbing her husband, even though she had failed to identify Browning in two separate photographic lineups prior to the trial. Browning’s defense lawyer failed to question her about the photo lineups or the fact that she had attended more than a dozen pretrial hearings where Browning was in court. She also identified photographs of jewelry found in Wolfe’s motel as jewelry that had been taken in the robbery.

Randall Wolfe testified and admitted that he had been a heroin and cocaine user and was still using heroin occasionally. He said that Vanessa was a sex worker and the money she earned supported them and their drug habits. Wolfe testified that about five days before the crime, Browning and Gaylord traveled from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and checked into the same motel where they lived. Gaylord and Vanessa knew each other from the streets of Los Angeles.

Wolfe testified that he was working on the car of the motel manager when he heard Browning shouting his name from the window of Wolfe’s second-story room. Wolfe said he went up to the room and that Browning told him, “Be cool. I just robbed for this jewelry and I killed this guy.” Wolfe said that he told Browning that he had just called a source to buy drugs and that he had to go meet the source or risk not making the connection. He said that was a ruse to get out of the room so that he could call the police.

Wolfe said that when he went downstairs he saw Vanessa who was “fixing to bring a date upstairs.” Wolfe said he told her that Browning was in the room and that he claimed to have killed someone. “Go up there and keep him cool for a minute,” Wolfe said he told her, “I’m going to get the police.”

He said he then drove the motel manager in her car to the grocery store—as he had previously promised—and then drove to the crime scene where he saw Officer Radcliffe, whom he knew from the past. He said he asked if the store had been robbed by a black man. When police asked why, Wolfe said, “I said, ‘Hey, look, if this case has been robbed by a black guy, I have a black guy up in my [room] that’s got a bunch of jewelry. He said he just robbed the place.’”

Wolfe said that he went with police to the motel and that by that time, Vanessa was outside. Wolfe said that later that night, after the police had left, he and Vanessa were allowed back inside and that she found a plastic cup containing more jewelry that was stashed under the kitchen sink.

Wolfe also testified that just hours before he took the witness stand, he had admitted that he had kept some of the jewelry in the hope of selling it. He also admitted that he had lied during a preliminary hearing in the case when he denied keeping any of the jewelry. He said he had not been told if he would be charged with any crime—either theft or perjury.

However, he did admit he had prior convictions for selling drugs and escape, and that he had been charged with attempted possession of stolen property for an unrelated crime. He said he had pled guilty and would be sentenced after Browning’s trial. He said he had not been promised anything for his testimony and that he was facing one to five years in prison.

Vanessa Wolfe testified that at her husband’s request, she went up to the room (her “date” had fled, she said). She said that Browning came out of the bathroom with the knife in his hands and it was wet as if he had washed it. At his request, she hid it under the stairs and also threw his blue cap into the dumpster.

After helping Browning cut tags off the jewelry, she said she put them into an empty milk carton and took that to the dumpster. She said she did not return to the room because Browning said that “he wasn’t going to jail and do life” and that if the police came he was going to use her as a hostage. She said she “wandered aimlessly in a circle for a moment, then headed for the street.” That’s when police arrived and went up to the room, she said.

Steven Scarborough, a latent fingerprint examiner, said that he found a thumbprint belonging to Browning on a watch in Wolfe’s room. He said that a fingerprint on a shard of glass from the back of a display case at the jewelry store belonged to Browning as did a partial palm print that was found on a jewelry case.

Seaton, the prosecutor, asked, “Can any two people have the same fingerprints?”

“No,” Scarborough said. “Absolutely not.”

“Is a fingerprint, then, an absolute way of making an identification?” Seaton asked.

“Yes,” Scarborough replied.

Minoru Aoki, a police department criminalist, testified that he determined through serology testing that Elsen had type B blood and that Browning had type O blood. Aoki said that the blood on the jacket was type B. He was not asked and did not offer any statistics on the percentages of the population with the different types of blood.

Bloody shoeprints that appeared to be left by a tennis shoe were found leading out of the store. When arrested, Browning was wearing loafers that had a flat sole and his shoes were excluded as having made the shoeprint. However, a crime scene investigator testified that while the shoeprint had not been compared to any other shoe, most paramedics wore tennis shoes.

The motel manager, Martha Hagar, testified for the defense that prior to the crime, she knew that Randall Wolfe had a number of friends hanging around, including one who was dark-skinned. She also said that after the crime, both of the Wolfes were wearing jewelry they didn’t have before and that Vanessa showed her an antique pocket watch that she said she was going to give to her father for Christmas. Hagar also recalled that there was a guest staying at the hotel who drove a small car with Virginia license plates.

Police officer Gregory Branon testified that he and another officer were the first to get to the scene. He said that the description he got was of a man wearing a windbreaker jacket, jeans, a blue cap, and having shoulder-length Jheri-style curled hair.

The defense also called a hair stylist who testified that Jheri-curls were the result of a chemical treatment that left the hair looking wet and was distinctly different from an Afro-style, which Browning had.

William Hoffman testified that he owned a sporting goods business just a few doors away from Elsen’s jewelry store. He said that shortly before the robbery/murder, he saw a Cuban man walking down the street wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and a blue cap. Hoffman said he was taken to the police car and asked to look at Browning and that he said Browning was not the man he saw on the street.

Robert Amundson was the chief public defender in Clark County and had represented Browning until he had to step aside due to conflict. Amundson said he had gone to the motel to look through Browning’s possessions, which the motel had boxed up. In the boxes was a blue hat, Amundson testified.

At the conclusion of the defense's case, Browning stood before the jury box and put on the coat and blue cap. The coat was so small that the sleeves ended about half-way down his forearms. The cap also was too small for Browning’s head.

During closing argument, prosecutor Seaton told the jury: “Mr. Elsen had B blood and we know that he bled that day. And we know…the [assailant] had jeans on and a light jacket. We have here a light jacket before us and the blood is right down here in an area which might be close to a person as you are leaning over and you are stabbing that it would splatter up in that particular area. So the same blood as Hugo Elsen had flowing through his veins earlier that day was now spotted on the jacket…told to us by Vanessa as belonging to Mr. Browning.”

Seaton also told the jury that the description that the assailant had “Jheri-curl style” hair was the result of someone who was ignorant of what the term “Jheri-curl” meant and actually meant Afro-style.

On December 12, 1986, the jury deliberated one hour before convicting Browning of capital murder, armed robbery, burglary, and escape. The jury subsequently voted to sentence Browning to death.

In June 1988, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the convictions. In 1989, Browning filed a motion for post-conviction relief. The motion lay fallow for nearly a decade. However, in 1999, a hearing was held on the motion and Browning’s lawyers presented evidence of his innocence, as well as evidence supporting his claim that the prosecution failed to disclose favorable evidence and that his trial defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense.

This evidence included DNA testing that showed the blood on the jacket did not come from Elsen as the prosecution had argued at trial. Also, a forensics report indicated that Elsen’s stab wounds did not “coherently coincide” with the knife found in the box under the stairs.

In addition, police officer Gregory Branon, who testified at the trial that he was the first officer on the scene, testified that the bloody shoeprints were already there, strongly suggesting the shoeprints—which were not made by Browning’s shoes—were left by the real killer. Branon also testified that he used the term Jheri curl, but that Elsen did not. In fact, he said, Elsen was lucid when he arrived and distinctly said his attacker had shoulder length, “loosely curled” and “wet looking” hair—none of which fit Browning’s hair. Branon said he knew that Elsen was describing Jheri-curl hair and that he was not confused—as the prosecutor argued during the trial.

The defense presented evidence that prosecutor Seaton had in fact provided benefits to the Wolfes for their testimony, including that Seaton spoke on Randall Wolfe’s behalf at his sentencing. At that time, Wolfe was placed on probation despite facing the sentence of one to five years that he mentioned at trial. Seaton also helped Wolfe get a job after Browning’s trial.

Browning testified at the hearing that on the day of the crime, he was walking on Las Vegas Boulevard when he saw Randall Wolfe behind the wheel of a yellow Datsun compact car bearing Virginia license plates. Browning said he walked toward the car, which was parked near Elsen’s jewelry store, to ask Wolfe for a ride, but as he approached, a “Cuban guy” pushed him aside and got into the car. Browning said that man was wearing a blue cap and a tan coat—the coat that was later said to be his.

Browning testified that Wolfe told him to meet back at his motel room if he wanted a ride, so he went back there. The Cuban man, he said, was leaving in anger, and the room was full of jewelry. Browning said that Wolfe then left and the next thing he knew, police stormed the room. Browning also said that the watch found in the motel room with his fingerprint was his watch—not a watch taken from Elsen’s jewelry store.

The defense also presented evidence that another witness, Thomas Stamps, was willing to testify at Browning’s trial that Randall Wolfe used the identification of another man to sell jewelry, but was never called by Browning’s trial defense attorney. Yet another witness, Gerald Morrell, was willing to testify that the Wolfes had a history of falsely accusing people of committing crimes with a knife.

Nonetheless, in December 2001, Judge Pavlikowski denied the motion for new trial. In June 2004, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld Browning’s convictions, but ruled that the jury had not been properly instructed during the penalty phase of the case. The court ordered a new sentencing hearing. In August 2006, after another sentencing hearing, another jury sentenced Browning to death again. After an appeal, the death sentence was upheld in 2008.

In the meantime, Browning had filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus that was largely based on claims that his trial defense attorney had failed to adequately investigate the case prior to his trial. The petition was denied in 2014 by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones.

However, in September 2017, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and granted the writ (although it did not vacate the escape conviction). The court ordered a new trial for Browning because of the prosecution’s failure to disclose before Browning’s trial that officer Branon knew that paramedics had not left the bloody shoeprints because the prints were already there when the paramedics arrived.

The appeals court held that prosecutor Seaton had in fact provided benefits to Randall Wolfe, despite his denial that he did so at Browning’s trial. The court also said the prosecution had failed to disclose that Elsen’s description did not include the term Jheri curl.

“Had the prosecution disclosed before trial that victim Hugo Elsen’s description of his assailant’s hair was not a ‘shoulder length J[h]eri-type curl,’ but ‘shoulder length,’ ‘loosely curled,’ and ‘wet,’ Browning could have easily refuted the prosecution’s argument,” the appeals court said. “This makes the exact words Hugo [Elsen] used to describe his assailant evidence favorable to the defense.”

The appeals court said that “a mixture of disturbing prosecutorial misconduct and woefully inadequate assistance of counsel” resulted in “extreme malfunctions” in Browning’s 1986 trial.

As a result, the case was remanded back to the district court in Clark County and a trial date of January 22, 2019 was set. Prior to the trial, the prosecution turned over documents to Browning’s defense team that included a police report that had never been disclosed before.

That report included a statement from Elsen’s wife, Josy, that contradicted her trial testimony about whether she could identify her husband’s attacker. The report said that Josy could only remember that the man wore a blue cap. “She could not describe the black male, who got up and ran out the front door,” the report said.

In addition, the report said that the attacker ran out of the front door as Josy watched. This contradicted the trial testimony of Debra Coe, the woman who was in the store next to the jewelry store. Coe testified that Josy came to her door calling for help, and that she called police and looked out of her front window to see a black man whom she later identified as Browning. The defense noted that if Coe saw Browning, it was not because he was the killer—according to Josy, the killer had already left.

Moreover, Josy’s statement in the undisclosed report supported the evidence that the killer made the bloody footprints, which even the prosecution conceded at Browning’s trial were not made with Browning’s shoes.

Browning’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case rather than be retried. The motion noted that nearly all of the witnesses in the original trial were dead or unavailable to testify, including Josy Elsen, Randall and Vanessa Wolfe, Minoru Aoki (blood analyst), Martha Hagar (motel manager), Marcia Gaylord (Browning’s then-girlfriend), and Fredrick Ross, a man Browning met in prison who said that on the day of the crime, he saw Randall Wolfe and a Cuban man fleeing from Elsen’s jewelry store.

In March 2019, Clark County District Judge Douglas Herndon granted the defense motion and dismissed the case. Judge Herndon ruled that because Browning’s trial defense attorney had failed to conduct meaningful cross-examinations of witnesses—such as Josy Elsen—the original trial testimony could not be read at a retrial. As a result, the judge ruled, “a fair trial consistent with due process is no longer possible.”

The prosecution appealed.

On August 21, 2019, Judge Herndon ordered Browning released more than 33 years after his conviction.

On January 24, 2020, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed Judge Herndon and the case was finally dismissed.

In July 2020, Browning filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. Browning died on March 23, 2021.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/30/2020
Last Updated: 9/4/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1985
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*