JOYCE ANN BROWN, SHACKLED BY HER NAME TO ANOTHER’S CRIME
It was her greater misfortune to have been working for a furrier at the time the crime occurred.
But as things played out, it was her greatest misfortune of all simply to have been named Joyce Ann Brown.
Ms. Brown, who died on Saturday at 68, was a former Dallas receptionist who in a racially charged case that became a national cause célèbre spent nearly a decade in prison for a crime she did not commit. She later became a prisoners’ rights advocate.
Her death, from a heart attack in a Dallas hospital, was confirmed by James C. McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries, an investigative organization based in Princeton, N.J., that has helped overturn more than 50 wrongful convictions, including Ms. Brown’s.
Convicted by an all-white jury, Ms. Brown, who was black, received a life sentence for her alleged role in the robbery of a Dallas fur shop — a competitor of the one where she worked — in which a man was killed. She served nine years, five months and 24 days before her conviction was set aside.
Her case threw into sharp relief issues of race, class, mistaken identity, prosecutorial misconduct, the unreliability of witness memory and the seduction of circumstantial evidence. It was examined on “60 Minutes” in 1989 and inspired Ms. Brown’s memoir, “Joyce Ann Brown: Justice Denied” (1990), written with Jay Gaines. It also inspired the repentance of at least one juror.
“Part of the significance of Joyce Ann Brown’s case was that she was one of the first dramatic exonerations, not only in Texas but in the country,” Jack V. Strickland, one of her defense lawyers, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
About 1 o’clock on the afternoon of May 6, 1980, two women walked into Fine Furs by Rubin, a shop owned by Rubin and Ala Danziger, Holocaust survivors who had settled in Dallas. One of the women, who wore pink pants, ordered the Danzigers at gunpoint to load furs into plastic trash bags.
Before leaving, she shot Mr. Danziger, who later died. She and her accomplice, clad in a navy blue jogging suit, fled with the furs in a brown Datsun.
Dallas police officers found the car, abandoned, the next day. They learned that it had been rented by a woman named Joyce Ann Brown.
An Unshakable Alibi
The Joyce Ann Brown around whom the ensuing chain of misapprehension tightened was born Joyce Ann Spencer on Feb. 12, 1947, in Wills Point, in northeast Texas, and raised in Dallas. Her mother, Ruby, was a homemaker; her father, Sylvester, was a domestic worker.
Joyce Spencer married a musician named James Brown (not the celebrated one) but was widowed barely two years later, when he was shot and killed in a nightclub brawl.
With only a high school education, and needing to help support an extended family that included a daughter, two stepsons and 14 brothers and sisters, Ms. Brown went to work part time as a call girl. She was arrested at least once on prostitution charges.
At the time of the robbery, Ms. Brown, who had long since found conventional employment, was working as a receptionist at Koslow’s Furs in Dallas, about three miles from the Danzigers’ shop. Not long afterward, she opened The Dallas Morning News and read to her astonishment that she was wanted for questioning in connection with a capital murder.
She resolved to see the police and clear things up.
“Don’t go down there,” her mother later recalled warning her. “You may not come back.”
Ms. Brown was unconcerned, for she had an unshakable alibi: On the day of the robbery, her office time clock showed her punching in at 8:48 a.m. and out at 4:12 p.m. But her mother’s words proved prophetic.
A Number of Errors
At the police station, the first link in the chain of circumstantial evidence against Ms. Brown was her name. That there were probably hundreds of women in the United States named Joyce Ann Brown did not appear to matter, she said afterward — it was she, after all, who was on the books of the Dallas police.
Her job in a fur shop quickly became the second link: To the police it suggested that she had an insider’s knowledge of the business and knew which furs were most valuable.
The third link proved to be her face: Presented with a photo array, Mrs. Danziger identified Ms. Brown as the robber in blue, and she was placed under arrest.
Soon afterward, however, the Dallas police learned that the Joyce Ann Brown who had rented the Datsun lived in Denver. The Denver Joyce Ann Brown told them that she had lent the car to a friend, Rene (sometimes spelled Renee) Taylor.
Ms. Taylor had a history of robbing furriers. At her apartment in Dallas the police found a .22-caliber revolver, furs from the Danzigers’ shop and a pair of pink pants. Ms. Taylor was at large, but the getaway car bore her fingerprints. No incriminating evidence was found in the home of Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas.
Texas officials prosecuted Ms. Brown anyway. Their reasons were never made clear, but they may well have been rooted, Ms. Brown’s supporters say, in their feelings about her social class, her former profession and the color of her skin.
“Criminal cases sometimes acquire a momentum of their own, and sometimes there’s an attitude that we find: ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got my mind made up,’” Mr. Strickland, the lawyer, said. “You always want to hope that it’s either in the bad old days or that it’s a Hollywood plotline. But sometimes it’s not.”
Ms. Brown’s trial began in October 1980. As if in a cosmic reminder of the very ubiquity that had landed her there in the first place, a deputy in the trial court was also named Joyce Ann Brown, D Magazine, a Dallas publication, reported.
The prosecutors’ theory of the crime was that Ms. Brown, whom co-workers described as having worn a black blouse and white skirt that day, had slipped out of her office, changed into the blue jogging suit, driven the three miles to the Danzigers’ shop, committed the robbery, changed back into her office clothes, made the three-mile return trip and gone back to work — all in her 36-minute lunch break.
That witness was the fourth, and most damning, link in the chain.
The witness was Martha Jean Bruce, a cellmate while Ms. Brown awaited trial, who testified that Ms. Brown had admitted the crime to her. What the prosecutor, Norman Kinne, did not mention was that less than a year before, in an unrelated case, Ms. Bruce had pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the police.
At the time of Ms. Brown’s trial, Ms. Bruce was in prison for attempted murder. Though she said on cross-examination that she had received no inducement to testify, her sentence was commuted shortly afterward.
By then, Ms. Bruce’s testimony had done its work.
“She did a good job; she knew what she was doing,” Dan Peeler, a juror in the trial, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “The legal system requires that you follow only the information that’s given to you in the testimony. And of course we had no idea that she was a convicted perjurer.”
After deliberating for “just a few hours,” as Mr. Peeler recalled, the jury found Ms. Brown guilty of aggravated robbery. Had he known about Ms. Bruce’s history, he said afterward, he would have voted to acquit.
“When I saw Joyce’s face when the verdict was rendered, I was just in shock,” Mr. Peeler said on Tuesday. “She was devastated — and surprised — because she was innocent. And I knew at the time that we had probably made a terrible mistake, but we couldn’t do anything about it. And I could never get her face out of my thoughts for all of those years.”
Ms. Brown was incarcerated at Mountain View, a women’s prison in Gatesville, Tex.
Seeking the Truth
“I had been represented by a white attorney, convicted by a white jury, sentenced by a white judge, and I arrived at prison on a white bus,” Ms. Brown wrote in 1990, in a first-person article in D Magazine. “Now the clothing issued to me was white. It seemed that all the color was being removed from my life.”
In prison, she endured indignities like frisking and strip-searching, along with soul-numbing boredom that she escaped by sleeping 14 hours a day. During her time there, her 16-year-old stepson, Lee Dennis, committed suicide.
“I don’t know if me being in prison had anything to do with that, but I believe — and I have to live with it — that had I been home, I don’t think he would have been dead,” Ms. Brown, speaking from prison, said in the “60 Minutes” broadcast.
A further indignity was that the year after her conviction, Ms. Brown was joined in prison by Ms. Taylor — the woman in pink. Apprehended in 1981, Ms. Taylor pleaded guilty to the robbery and the murder of Mr. Danziger. She never publicly named her accomplice, but she signed an affidavit saying that neither the Dallas nor the Denver Joyce Ann Brown was involved in the crime.
Yet Ms. Brown remained in prison. She earned her associate degree there, and over time, as she later wrote, her bitterness gave way to determination to see her conviction righted.
By 1988, when Mr. McCloskey took up her case, at least two jurors, including Mr. Peeler, were having second thoughts. A few days after the trial, Mr. Peeler timed himself as he drove the route Ms. Brown was alleged to have taken, from one fur shop to another in noonday traffic.
“I wanted to be sure we did the right thing,” he said. After making the drive, he said, “I was sure we did the wrong thing.” He began speaking on Ms. Brown’s behalf in interviews.
Speaking to Ms. Taylor in prison, Mr. McCloskey learned the name of her alleged accomplice. He traveled to Colorado, where the woman was serving a sentence for another armed robbery, and noticed immediately, he said, that she strongly resembled Ms. Brown.
Ms. Bruce’s guilty plea for lying to the police also came to light. On the strength of all this, and buoyed by the “60 Minutes” broadcast and an investigative series on the case in The Dallas Morning News, Ms. Brown’s lawyers petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to set her conviction aside.
In November 1989 the court granted Ms. Brown her freedom, and the district attorney later chose not retry her. On the last day of 1993, her record was expunged.
Settling in Dallas, Ms. Brown worked as an aide to a county commissioner. She also founded MASS — Mothers (Fathers) for the Advancement of Social Systems — which aids both wrongfully convicted prisoners and released convicts seeking to re-enter society. She worked with the organization to the end of her life.
Ms. Brown’s survivors include her mother, Ruby Kelley; a daughter, Koquice Spencer; a stepson, Mygeish Dennis; seven brothers, Sylvester Jr., Robert, Horace, John, Lago and Jimmy — all Spencers — as well as Marvin Kelley; seven sisters, Mary Black, Vickie Wilson, Jean Reed, Tangela Thomas, Judy Jones, Addie Spencer and Stacy Spencer; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Kinne, the district attorney, died in 2004. Ms. Taylor is serving a life sentence in Texas for the Danziger robbery and murder. Her alleged accomplice has never been charged in that crime.
Mr. Peeler, the juror, who at the time of the trial worked as an animator, later went to divinity school, partly in response, he said, to his feelings about the case. He now works part time as a minister for a Dallas congregation that focuses on social justice issues.
After Ms. Brown’s release, she and Mr. Peeler became friends, appearing together at public events. He has since served on other juries, all in civil court.
“When I’ve been on juries throughout the years since then, I’ve been very deliberate in telling the other jurors what a grave responsibility it is, regardless of the offense,” Mr. Peeler said on Tuesday. “It’s not just something to shrug off because you really don’t want to be there.”
ELISABETH ELLIOT, TENACIOUS MISSIONARY IN FACE OF TRAGEDY
Lars Gren, her third husband, announced the death on Ms. Elliot’s website. She had had dementia for about a decade.
Ms. Elliot wrote two books stemming from her experience in Ecuador, and together they became for evangelicals “the definitive inspirational mission stories for the second half of the 20th century,” said Kathryn Long, a history professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.
The first, “Through Gates of Splendor,” published in 1957, recounted the ill-fated mission of her first husband, Jim Elliot, and four other American men to bring Protestant Christianity to the remote Waorani (also spelled Huaorani) Indians. It ranked No. 9 on Christianity Today’s list of the top 50 books that shaped evangelicals.
Ms. Elliot focused on her husband’s work a year later in “Shadow of the Almighty.”
“Her early adulthood as she told it,” Professor Long said in an email, “was the stuff of inspiration: an intensely spiritual and deeply romantic love story with her first husband; her support for her husband and his friends when they decided to risk their lives to contact a violent and isolated tribal people in the rain forests of eastern Ecuador; her commitment to telling their story as a story of faith and triumph after their deaths; and her insistence that she and her daughter were called by God to live with their husband’s and father’s killers, which they did.”
After Mr. Elliot and his colleagues landed by plane on Jan. 2, 1956, he kept rehearsing a message of good will — “Biti miti punimupa,” meaning “I like you, I want to be your friend” — from a Waorani phrase book. Three tribe members made a friendly visit, but then there was apparently a miscommunication or a perceived threat. After the missionaries failed to make radio contact with a base station, searchers found their bodies pierced by wooden spears.
Ms. Elliot renewed contact with the tribe over the next two years. In 1958, accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter and the sister of one of the murdered missionaries, she moved in with the Waoranis, known to their neighbors as Aucas, or savages. She ministered to them and remained in their settlement, in the foothills of the Andes, subsisting on barbecued monkey limbs and other local fare and living in rain-swept huts.
By her account they named her the Waorani word for woodpecker (or crane, by another account, because of her height).
A Waorani, Ms. Elliot wrote in Life magazine in 1961, “has not a reason in the world for thinking us his betters, and he probably has some very valid reasons for thinking us his inferiors.”
She came to understand why her husband was killed, she wrote.
“The Auca was trying to preserve his own way of life, his own liberty,” she explained in Life. “He believed the foreigners were a threat to that liberty, so he feels he had every right to kill them. In America, we decorate a man for defending his country.”
She expressed similar thoughts of understanding and forgiveness in “Through Gates of Splendor,” writing: “The prayers of the widows themselves are for the Aucas. We look forward to the day when these savages will join us in Christian praise.”
She was born Elisabeth Howard in Brussels on Dec. 21, 1926, the daughter of missionaries, Philip E. Howard Jr. and the former Katherine Gillingham. As a child she moved to Philadelphia, where her father edited The Sunday School Times. She grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before enrolling in Wheaton College, where she majored in Greek and hoped to become a Bible translator.
After training for missionary work, she and Mr. Elliot, whom she had met at Wheaton, left for Ecuador independently. They were married there in 1953.
Mr. Elliot had translated the New Testament into the local language and had airdropped gifts for the Indians when he and his colleagues — Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian and Ed McCully — landed on a beach along the Curaray River and established a camp. An initial friendly overture was followed by their massacre.
Ms. Elliot returned several times to the United States before finally moving to New Hampshire, in 1963. She married Addison H. Leitch, who became a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He died in 1973. Four years later she married Mr. Gren, a hospital chaplain. In addition to him, she is survived by her daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepard.
Ms. Elliot taught at Gordon-Conwell and wrote a score of books, including a biography of the missionary Amy Carmichael; a novel titled “No Graven Image,” which raised anguished questions about the motives of missionaries; and inspirational guides, including “Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under God’s Control.” She also hosted a Christian radio program, “Gateway to Joy.”
After her death, Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition recalled on its website that as a college student Ms. Elliot had dabbled in poetry. He quoted one of her poems, in which she foretold an acceptance of her own death:
Perhaps some future day, Lord,
Thy strong hand will lead me to the place
Where I must stand utterly alone;
Alone, Oh gracious Lover, but for Thee.
BLAZE STARR, BURLESQUE QUEEN WHO WAS LINKED TO A GOVERNOR
A nephew, Earsten Spaulding, said Ms. Starr had been stricken at home in Wilsondale and pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. She had undergone heart bypass surgeries in recent years, he said.
With thickly luxurious, fiery red hair, an ample bosom and a penchant for playful humor, Ms. Starr stoked the imaginations of legions of admirers from the runways of clubs across the country for more than 30 years, seducing many men along the way.
Her most famous affair, with Gov. Earl K. Long of Louisiana, who was married, caused a scandal that was the basis of the Ron Shelton film “Blaze,” starring Lolita Davidovich in the title role alongside Paul Newman as the governor. The film drew on her memoir, “Blaze Starr: My Life as Told to Huey Perry,” published in 1974.
Ms. Starr said that she and Mr. Long were engaged to be married when he died in 1960, two months before his divorce was to become final. She continued to wear a five-carat diamond ring that she said he had given her.
“Society thought that to be a stripper was to be a prostitute,” Ms. Starr told The New York Times in 1989, at the time of the movie’s release. “But I always felt that I was an artist, entertaining. I was at ease being a stripper. I kept my head held high, and if there is such a thing as getting nude with class, then I did it.”
She was born Fannie Belle Fleming in Wilsondale on April 10, 1932. As a child, the eighth of 11 in her family, she washed laundry for $1 a day. Her father was a railroad worker. As a teenager she got on a bus to Washington and landed a job there as a singer in a country band. But while working at a doughnut shop she met a promoter who persuaded her to become a stripper, saying the pay was better.
At 15, Ms. Starr began performing at a club near the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. In 1950, after moving to Baltimore, she stepped onto the runway of the 2 O’Clock Club on the Block, that city’s famous strip of adult entertainment shops and stages. Two of her sisters, following her lead, also worked as strippers on the Block.
Ms. Starr gained national recognition when she was featured in Esquire magazine in 1954, hailed as the successor to Lili St. Cyr on the burlesque circuit. Unlike Ms. St. Cyr, however, she made many of her own costumes, part of a stage wardrobe, including three mink coats, that was valued in 1967 at $20,000 (about $142,000 in today’s money).
“I didn’t have a thing to do between shows, so I started to sew,” Ms. Starr told The Times that year.
She had recently spent four months sewing and gluing hundreds of beads on a black lamé gown. She also designed her $100,000 ranch-style house in Baltimore, complete with a purple sunken bathtub and fur-covered furniture. The newspapers called it “Belle’s Little Acre.” She was earning up to $100,000 a year in the mid-1960s.
Onstage, she often delighted crowds by tucking a rose in her bosom and blowing the petals across her chest. Sometimes she stretched out on a couch and wiggled seductively while removing her garments. When she got to the last pieces, smoke would emerge from between her legs, drawing laughs.
Ms. Starr met Governor Long while performing at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans in 1959. She recalled their affair in her memoir, and also claimed to have had a sexual encounter with President John F. Kennedy after he attended one of her shows.
Ms. Starr performed for more than 30 years, sometimes in the Times Square theater district, before hanging up her G-string and pasties in the 1980s, telling People magazine in 1989 that she stopped because burlesque had become raunchy. She became a gemologist, making jewelry and selling it at a mall in suburban Baltimore.
Reflecting on her career as a stripper, she told a reporter for The Baltimore Sun in 2010: “Honey, I loved it. But everything has its season.”
Ms. Starr was married to Carroll Glorioso, the owner of the 2 O’Clock Club, for 12 years before they divorced. Her survivors include five sisters: Betty June Shrader, Debbie Fleming, Berta Gail Browning, Mary Jane Davis and Judy Maynard; one brother, John Fleming; and a host of nieces and nephews.
In a short video profile filmed before the movie “Blaze” was released, Ms. Starr was asked whether she would change anything about her life if she could.
“Not a thing,” she responded. “I would just do a lot more of it and try a lot harder, and seduce a lot more men than I did.”