Early in the morning of October 17, 1901, the dead body of Harry E. Wesson was found in the Florida Southern Railway yard in Palatka, Florida. Wesson, a railway engineer, had been shot once in the head. When his body was found, the pockets of his pants had been turned inside out, suggesting a robbery, but $130 was found tucked inside his overalls.
This murder caused a great deal of uproar in the small town of Palatka, and the sheriff rounded up a handful of suspects that afternoon and put them in jail. This collection of suspects included the railway yard night watchman, Lucius Crawford. According to the jailer, later that same evening a black man, whom the jailer identified as J.B. Brown, approached the jail yard and spoke to Lucius Crawford through the fence. The jailer claimed he heard J.B. Brown tell Crawford to “keep your mouth shut and say nothing.” Brown was a former brakeman on one of the trains. His alleged comments were reported to the sheriff, and he was arrested within the hour.
Two witnesses claimed that bad blood had existed between Wesson and Brown due to a dispute two months prior and that Brown had discussed his intention to shoot Wesson. While Brown was held in prison, his cellmate, Alonzo Mitchell, claimed Brown confessed to him. Mitchell reported that Brown had admitted he and Jim “J.J.” Johnson had plotted to kill Wesson, and that Brown had shot Wesson with Johnson’s gun. With this additional testimony, Brown and J.J. Johnson were indicted for first-degree murder.
At his trial in November 1901, Brown took the stand to provide a detailed account of his whereabouts during the time of the crime, and he provided witnesses to corroborate his story. He also contradicted much of what was said by other witnesses, including that he had ever been involved in a dispute with Wesson or felt any hostility toward him. Additionally, Brown denied the jailer’s story that he had come to the jail fence to speak with Lucius Crawford on the day of the murder. However, the alleged confession and other circumstantial evidence against Brown were presented to the jury, and Brown was convicted and sentenced to be hanged.
Shortly after his conviction, Brown was led out to the gallows, and the rope was placed around his neck. The death warrant was read, and, to the great confusion of everyone present, the name listed on the warrant was that of the jury foreman rather than that of J.B. Brown. For this reason, the hanging was postponed. In the interim, Brown’s attorneys successfully petitioned the governor for a commutation of Brown’s death sentence to life in prison. In the spring of 1902, the case against his co-defendant, J.J. Johnson, was dismissed.
Brown spent his years in prison working on a chain gang as part of Florida’s convict lease system. During this era, Florida leased its convicts out to turpentine operators and phosphate mines, with the State receiving payment for the prisoners’ labor.
Over a decade later, J.J. Johnson lay on his deathbed, at which time he confessed that he alone had killed Harry Wesson and Brown was innocent. Officials looked into the other details provided by Johnson and determined that his deathbed confession was the truth.
On the recommendation of the judge and prosecuting attorney, Florida Governor Park Trammell and the Florida pardon board granted a full pardon to J.B. Brown on October 1, 1913. In 1929, Brown, elderly and in poor health, sought a pension for his years of wrongful imprisonment and the labor he had provided during those years. Ultimately, the Legislature appropriated $2,492, to be paid in monthly installments of $25, for Brown’s service while wrongfully imprisoned for twelve years.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
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.