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John Brown, Jr.

Other Arkansas exonerations
On the morning of September 22, 1988, the body of 78-year-old Myrtle Holmes was found in the trunk of her car in Fordyce, Arkansas. She had been raped and stabbed multiple times inside her home. Her throat was slit and she had been dragged to the carport and put in the trunk.

Inside the house was evidence of an extreme struggle. In the living room, blood was found on the couch, the carpet, a throw rug, and a chair. A broken knife blade was on the floor. There were bloodstains on the walls in a walkway leading to the bedroom where more bloodstains were found on the floor and on the bed. A pot and a pot handle were recovered there. The victim’s false teeth were shattered on the bed. The dresser had been ransacked.

The telephone had been pulled from the wall and the cord had been cut. In the kitchen, two butcher knives were found, one lying across an open silverware drawer, the other with its tip broken off. There was a blood trail leading from the bedroom through the kitchen and pantry out a side door to a carport. It ended at the rear of Holmes’s car.

During the first months of the investigation, Darrell Jenkins told police that 17-year-old Reginald Early had confessed to the crime. Jenkins said Early told him that he came in through an unlocked door, stole money from a dresser, killed Holmes by hitting her on the head with pots and pans, and then put her body in the trunk.

Police also learned that during an argument with a woman with whom Early shared a child, he said he would do to her what he had done to “that lady over on the south side,” apparently referring to Holmes, who lived on the south side of Fordyce.

However, no arrest was made.

About a year later, with the crime still unsolved, Michael Joe Earley, a former Fordyce police officer, began his own investigation of the crime at the request of neighbors and friends of the victim. Ultimately, Earley was paid $5,000 for his work on the case.

Not long after, Earley told police that Taura Bryant, who had been an informant for him while he was still in the department, told him that 21-year-old Charles Vaughn had committed the crime. She said that she saw Vaughn with three other people—21-year-old John Brown, Jr., 23-year-old Tina Jimerson and 17-year-old Reginald Early—the day after the crime. Vaughn said that he had robbed the victim, that she was “big as an ocean” and that he “could fit a light pole up her.” She said that Brown had a red stain on his knee.

DNA testing was performed by Cellmark Laboratory on vaginal swabs which contained sperm. The tests excluded Vaughn and Brown. Early could not be excluded.

On March 16, 1990, Vaughn, Brown, and Early were charged with murder, rape and robbery.

Police had interviewed Vaughn twice prior to his arrest. Both times, he denied involvement in the crime. Not long after he was arrested, Vaughn, who could not read or write, had a friend write a letter to an attorney requesting help. The letter said Vaughn had no knowledge of the crime.

However, a year after his arrest, on March 24, 1991, Vaughn made a statement to police at the Dallas County Jail admitting to taking part in the crime and incriminating Brown, Jimerson and Early.

The following day, March 25, 1991, Vaughn pled guilty in return for a sentence of life in prison.

At the plea hearing, he said that Jimerson, with Brown as a passenger, picked him up and drove to Holmes’s house to rob her. Only after the judge prompted Vaughn did he say that Early was with them when they went to Holmes’s house. There, according to Vaughn, Jimerson remained in the car while Vaughn, Brown and Early went inside. Vaughn said Brown entered through a window and opened the door so that Vaughn and Early could enter.

Vaughn said they found money and that Brown attacked Holmes. Vaughn first said Brown used a pipe and then changed his account to say that Brown beat Holmes with a skillet. Vaughn claimed that all three men raped Holmes and that at one point Brown removed Holmes’s oxygen mark and stabbed her to death. Vaughn said he and Brown put Holmes’s body in the truck of her car.

Asked by the judge if he had given a statement to police, Vaughn said he had. “It’s a little story,” Vaughn said. Asked by the judge if there was “any doubt” in his mind that he, Brown and Early went into the home intending to rob Holmes, Vaughn said. “That’s what we supposed to have went and did was rob.”

Two days later, on March 27, 1991, Jimerson was arrested and charged with being an accessory to the rape and robbery.

Brown, Jimerson and Early went to trial in Dallas County Circuit Court in April 1992. Dr. Robin Cotton from Cellmark testified that the DNA testing excluded Brown and Vaughn as the source of the sperm and that Early could not be excluded.

Vaughn was called to testify and recanted his statement and guilty plea. He said he knew nothing about the crime and only mentioned Brown, Jimerson and Early because his defense attorney told him to do so. Vaughn also said police and others had threatened him with the death penalty. “Man, like I told you, man, the lawyer was putting words in my mouth, man,” Vaughn testified. “I didn’t know nothing about—I don’t know nothing about this murder, man.”

At the request of deputy prosecutor Robin Wynne, Vaughn was declared a hostile witness and Wynne was allowed to read the transcript of Vaughn’s guilty plea before the jury.

Five witnesses testified to seeing Brown and the others in the days before and after the crime. Lee Parsons testified that once, while Brown was living with him, Brown came to the house with Jimerson, Early and Vaughn. Brown looked like he was in a hurry and was wearing clothes that appeared to have bloodstains on them. Lee admitted he did not tell police this information until three years after the crime and after his brother, Kenny Parsons, gave police a statement.

Kenny Parsons testified that before he learned of the murder, Jimerson had driven to his home in a car with Brown, Vaughn and Early. Brown had blood all over him, as if he had been in a fight. Kenny did not tell police this information until the day the defendants were arrested for crimes. At the time Kenny came forward, he was a trustee at the Dallas County Jail—a coveted position for inmates because they are given more freedom within the jail.

Taura Bryant testified that the day before the crime, she saw Brown, Early and Jimerson in the front yard of Levi Grandy’s home between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. She said they left and came back around 9 or 9:30 p.m., and Vaughn walked down the street. She said they left around 11 p.m. Each time, she saw them, Bryant said, they were in a different car.

Bryant said she saw all four at a different house the next night when Vaughn admitted that he robbed Holmes and made crude comments about her anatomy. Bryant said she heard Jimerson crying and saying, “shut up.” Bryant testified that Brown had a red stain on his knee and admitted that she had previously said Early had that same red stain on his clothes.

Ellis Tidwell testified that Brown and Vaughn, who looked “wide-eyed,” came to his home on the night of the crime. Tidwell said that Vaughn, who was seeking payment for work, introduced Brown by name. Tidwell said he refused, and later caught them trying to break into his shed and chased them off.

Patsy Harris, a municipal court clerk, testified that on the morning of September 22, 1992—the same day Holmes’s body was found—Brown appeared in court to testify in a civil case. She said that Brown’s shirt was unbuttoned and that Brown had a scar or wound on the right side of his chest.

Brown did not testify at the trial. Jimerson and Early testified and denied involvement in the crime. Jimerson said that in 1991 she rebuffed investigators who offered her a bribe if she would lie and falsely incriminate Brown and Early. She said police told her that “some nigger was going to do some time for this crime.”

After five days of deliberation, the jury said it was deadlocked with 6 jurors voting to convict and six jurors voting to acquit. As a result, on April 27, 1992, a mistrial was declared.

Brown, Jimerson and Early went to trial a second time four months later, in August 1992. However, the prosecution dismissed the rape charge and only prosecuted them for murder and robbery. As a result, the DNA testing evidence was not presented by either the prosecution or the defense. The Parsons brothers, Tidwell, Bryant and Harris again testified, as did Jimerson and Early, who denied involvement.

For the first time, the prosecution called Michael Joe Earley, the police officer-turned-investigator to the witness stand. Earley testified that on the night of the murder, he saw Reginald Early near Holmes’s home, although he admitted he had not given a formal statement to police about this sighting until just days before this second trial.

On August 19, 1992, the jury convicted Brown, Jimerson and Early of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. Like Vaughn, they were all sentenced to life in prison.

In January 1994, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions and sentences.

In 2013, attorneys Karen Thompson at the Innocence Project in New York City and Karen Daniel at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law hired Gregory Stimis, a private investigator in Little Rock, Arkansas, to begin investigating the murder convictions.

In January 2014, Stimis interviewed Donny Ford, the Dallas County Sheriff. Ford said that he became sheriff shortly before Holmes was murdered. Ford revealed for the first time that a jailhouse informant whose name he did not recall had been instrumental in obtaining Vaughn’s confession to the crime. Ford said that the man was a “meth cooker,” who was facing drug charges and the man had asked if there was anything he could do to improve his situation. Ford recalled that he told the man that he could try to obtain incriminating information from Vaughn, Early and Brown, all of whom were in the Dallas County Jail.

Ford told Stimis that the man was fitted with a secret recording device and sent back to the jail where he recorded conversations with Vaughn. Ford said that the informant discussed the death penalty with Vaughn. Subsequently, Vaughn told Ford he wanted to confess.

Ford said the recording no longer existed and that he believed the tape could not have been used at any trial because the informant was acting as an agent of the prosecution at a time when Vaughn was represented by a defense attorney.

In April 2015, Stimis interviewed Ronnie Poole, who had been the chief of Fordyce police at the time of the crime and by then was an instructor at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. Poole recalled that the informant was Ronnie Prescott. Poole said that in March 1991, he and Ford had gone to the prison in Huntsville, Texas, where they picked up Prescott and drove him back to Dallas County to face drug charges.

In June 2015, Jimerson’s attorney Karen Daniel (later joined by Andrea Lewis), filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, seeking a new trial. The petition said that the trial prosecutor, Robin Wynne, had failed to disclose the existence of Prescott and the prosecution had destroyed the tape of the conversations with Vaughn. In January 2015, Wynne had been sworn in as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In December 2015, after Early had filed a motion seeking DNA testing in the case, hoping to utilize the more sophisticated methods than those that existed in 1990, Early admitted that he committed the crime alone. He provided a sworn statement detailing the crime. He said that he did not come forward before because he knew that Brown and Jimerson were innocent, so he thought that they would be acquitted and that he might ride their coattails to an acquittal as well.

In 2016, the Midwest Innocence Project agreed to represent Brown. Attorney Erin Cassinelli from the law firm of Lassiter & Cassinelli and Rachel Wester and Tricia Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project filed a separate petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petitions outlined a litany of official misconduct.

Not only had the prosecution failed to disclose the existence of Prescott and the recorded conversations with Vaughn, but police had fabricated a police report of an interview with a witness named Shannon Manning. Although Manning was not called as a witness at the trial, Manning told lawyers for Jimerson and Brown that a police report quoting Manning as incriminating all of the defendants was false.

Ellis Tidwell, who testified that he recognized Brown as the man who accompanied Vaughn to his house and that both were “wild-eyed,” admitted that he did not know who Brown was until he was shown a photographic array that included Brown. The existence of the array had never been disclosed to defense lawyers at the time of trial. In addition, the habeas petition said Wynne, the prosecutor, had allowed Tidwell to falsely testify that he recognized Brown at the time without mentioning the photographic array.

Lee Parsons recanted his testimony that he saw Brown at his house. He admitted that he never saw Brown or any of the defendants at his house at any time. Parsons’s brother, Kenny, also recanted his testimony about seeing the defendants together. At the time he made the original statement, Kenny had been moved to the Dallas County Jail from prison so that he could be a trustee in the jail.

Patsy Harris, the court clerk who said that she saw Brown the day after the crime with an open shirt and a wound on his chest, said that in fact she saw a couple of white lines that looked like healed scars. She said she had not wanted to testify at the time, but that the judge in whose courtroom she worked ordered her to testify for the prosecution. She said that Brown appeared in court that day because he was testifying in a case in which Brown accused another man of stabbing him.

Lawyers for Brown located numerous witnesses who contradicted the testimony of Taura Bryant, the informant who claimed she had seen the defendants at a party the night before the crime and together the day after the crime.

Brown’s petitions said that his defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing, at the second trial, to present the DNA evidence that excluded Brown and Vaughn, and by failing to locate witnesses to undercut the testimony of Bryant and others that Brown, Jimerson, and Vaughn knew each other.

At an evidentiary hearing on Jimerson’s petition in 2016, the evidence was presented and included testimony from Reginald Early that he alone committed the crime. He said that on the day of the crime, he had been drinking and while walking home, he saw Holmes’s house. He said he decided to rob her because she had called police on him earlier that year.

Early said he woke up Holmes and asked her where she kept her money. When she tried to flee, he tackled her. Early said when he found money in Holmes’s dresser, she hit him with a pot and he retaliated by slamming her to the floor, hitting her several times and then raping her. He said that he resumed his search for more money. When Holmes tried to get away, he got knives from the kitchen, ripped the phone cord from the wall, and tied Holmes’s legs with a piece of fabric. He said he pushed her onto the bed, cut her throat, and stabbed her. When one knife broke, he finished with a second one, he said. Afterward, he dragged her body to the carport and put it in the trunk.

In 2017, a hearing was held on Brown’s habeas petition. Early again testified that he committed the crime and acted alone.

In 2018, Brown’s and Jimerson’s habeas petitions were granted in U.S. District Court and their convictions were set aside. The prosecution appealed.

On September 19, 2018, Brown was released on bond. On October 26, 2018, Jimerson was released. Both had been imprisoned more than 26 years after their conviction.

In April 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the granting of the habeas petitions. The court said that prosecutor Wynne and the police “worked together to intentionally conceal [the recording’s] existence from the defense.” The court said that the prosecution “effectively concealed the fact that a recorded conversation took place,” and destroyed it.

On September 4, 2020, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges against Jimerson and Brown. The trial court granted the motion on September 10, 2020.

On September 25 and 29, 2020, Brown and Jimerson filed federal civil rights lawsuits seeking compensation for their wrongful convictions. Among those named as defendants were Poole, the former Fordyce police chief, and Ford, the former Dallas County Sheriff.

On December 28, 2020, Brown died. He suffered from congestive heart failure resulting from years of untreated high blood pressure during his 26 years in prison.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/8/2020
Last Updated: 5/2/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1988
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No