In the spring of 1975, a case of mistaken identity sent Bradford Brown, a 35-year-old black man from Washington, D.C., to prison for a crime he did not commit. Five years later, the actual perpetrator was discovered and Brown was released. The police detective whose investigation led to Brown’s release told the press: “I kept thinking about what could have happened if Bradford had been in a state with the death penalty.”
On November 2, 1974, Rodney Frazier was shot and killed during a robbery attempt on the sidewalk in front of 1601 W Street SE in Washington, D.C. Margaret Holton, who lived with Frazier’s father, was an eyewitness to the crime and described the killer to the police. For months, the investigation stalled.
In April of the following year, Bradford Brown was arrested on a gun charge. He matched Holton’s description of the killer and, because he had previously been injured in a shooting in the area of the crime, police thought he might have returned for revenge.
Despite his insistence that he had spent the night of November 2, 1974 at a birthday party for his 6-year-old niece, Brown was charged with second-degree murder. At trial, Holton identified Brown as the man who had killed Frazier, telling the court that “I am sure of this guy’s face. I will never forget that face.” Brown was convicted and sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
According to Brown, his mother and sister “scraped up I think $3,000 and paid this lawyer to file a motion for appeal. That didn’t work.”
Washington Police Detective Robert Kanjian, who was not initially involved in Brown’s case, was told by one of his informants that he knew Frazier’s killer and it was not Bradford Brown. Kanjian told the press: “I was taken aback. Here was a man doing 18 years to life for the murder, and here I had this person who had been extremely reliable, and he was saying somebody else did it.”
Kanjian located the killer, who had left a phone number at the Frazier residence on the day of the crime. At the time, no one understood its significance, but Kanjian was able to connect the dots. It was enough evidence to arrest Richard Harris and allow Judge Norma Johnson of Superior Court to reverse Brown’s conviction. Harris pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and Brown was released in the fall of 1979. He was subsequently awarded $325,000 for his wrongful conviction.
- Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.