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December 9, 2006 - Dallas Morning News (TX)

[Tyrone Brown] DA Wants Prisoner's Freedom

Perry Asked To Commute Life Term For Minor Probation Violation

By Brooks Egerton, The Dallas Morning News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill has asked Gov. Rick Perry to free a man who tested positive for marijuana once while on probation for robbery and was sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. Hill also told the governor that the judge in Tyrone Brown's case -- which gained national attention after a report in The Dallas Morning News -- had expressed interest in helping free the inmate but failed to act.

Judge Keith Dean "contacted my office about this case several months ago, shortly after The Dallas Morning News ran a story about it," Mr. Hill wrote. "Dean told me that he wanted Brown to receive a time cut, but that he did not want to be the one to initiate it.

"I told Dean that I would join with him in requesting a time cut, but that he should be the one to initiate it because he was responsible for the sentence. Several months have passed, and Dean has not initiated the request."

Judge Dean did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week. He has previously declined to discuss the Brown case, which was featured last month on ABC-TV's 20/20 news show.

Viewers around the country expressed outrage after the newspaper and TV reports, and some began a letter-writing campaign asking public officials to help free Mr. Brown.

The governor's office has been getting mail about the matter since April, when The News wrote about Mr. Brown's case and contrasted it with another Dallas probation case that Judge Dean handled very differently.

Mr. Perry takes the district attorney's request "very seriously and will give it his full consideration" if the parole board endorses it, spokesman Ted Royer said.

Mr. Brown has been in prison since 1990, when he took part in a $2 armed robbery in which no one was hurt. He was 17 at the time; he had no adult criminal history and a minor juvenile record. His family was too poor to afford a lawyer, so the court appointed one. He pleaded guilty and was put on 10 years of deferred-adjudication probation.

Tyrone Brown is serving a life term at the maximum-security James Allred Unit near Wichita Falls. His case has drawn national attention. Judge Dean changed that to a life sentence after the one marijuana violation. The district attorney's office made no sentencing recommendation regarding the violation, court records show.

The contrasting case was that of John Alexander "Alex" Wood, a well-connected man who shot an unarmed prostitute in the back in 1995 and pleaded guilty to murder. Like Mr. Brown, he had no adult criminal record and got 10 years of deferred-adjudication probation.

Mr. Wood repeatedly tested positive for cocaine while on probation and committed other violations. He was arrested for cocaine possession in Waco while driving a congressman's car, but prosecutors there didn't press charges because of unspecified evidence problems. He smashed a woman's door in a dispute over a dog, but again the case was dropped.

Judge Dean let Mr. Wood stay free and eventually exempted him from most standard conditions of probation: no drug tests, no ban on gun ownership, no meetings with a probation officer. Mr. Wood completed his sentence in May, leaving him with no conviction on his record.

The district attorney is asking the governor to commute Mr. Brown's prison term to the 16 years he has already served.

"It is the belief of this office that Mr. Brown has paid his debt for this crime, and that life imprisonment is too harsh a penalty," Mr. Hill wrote.

Bill Hathaway, the robbery victim, has echoed that sentiment. He didn't know about Mr. Brown's sentence until The News contacted him earlier this year and said then: "You have got to be kidding me."

Two things must happen before Mr. Perry could take the rare step of commuting a sentence. First, the Board of Pardons and Paroles must get at least one more written recommendation, from Judge Dean or Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Then the board must recommend commutation to the governor.

The sheriff has not been asked to write a letter and is unfamiliar with the matter, officials in her administration said.

Judge Dean has been asked to join the effort and is meeting Monday with representatives of Mr. Brown's family, said the prisoner's mother, Nora Brown. She said she is confident that the judge will agree to help.

Mr. Hill said through his spokeswoman that Judge Dean gave him no reason for not wanting to initiate the commutation process.

The district attorney, who declined to be interviewed, did not seek re-election and is leaving office at the end of the month. The judge, a fellow Republican, lost his re-election bid.

Among private citizens who have urged the governor to commute Mr. Brown's sentence is O.S. Hawkins, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. He is a longtime friend of Alex Wood's family and testified on the killer's behalf during a trial that preceded the guilty plea.

"If there seems to ever have been unequal justice, it has been meted in [Mr. Brown's] situation," Dr. Hawkins told the governor in an April letter.

He told The News this week that he has "secured the help of a business owner here in Dallas who has offered to provide employment for Mr. Brown, should his sentence be commuted. I pray others will pick up his cause."

Mr. Brown, who is eligible for parole in 2009, said in a recent letter to The News that he was looking forward to "the day I finally get to hear these iron doors close behind me for the last time."

"I'm still here holding on as best I can and awaiting a better day, which is so near," he wrote. "There are many people out there who really do care what's going on in this world."

Contact Brooks Egerton at

Sidebar: Reducing Sentences Is A Rarity

Gov. Rick Perry doesn't grant commutations lightly.

He last reduced prisoners' sentences in June 2005, state officials say, and then only because the U.S. Supreme Court barred execution of those who committed murder as juveniles. The death sentences of 28 Texans subsequently were cut to life prison terms.

The parole board recommended two other commutations in 2005, according to clemency administrator Maria Ramirez. One was for a Madison County cocaine dealer named Lester Davis, who was already on parole. Mr. Perry refused to shorten his sentence.

The second was for a Harris County murderer named Max Moussazadeh, who asked to reduce his prison term from 75 years to 30. Mr. Perry has not acted on that request.

Ms. Ramirez said the governor last granted a Dallas County commutation request in 2002. That resulted in Charles Garrett going free after serving nearly four years of a life sentence for possessing two grams of heroin.

Mr. Garrett was originally sentenced in 1970. He fled while a jury was deliberating his punishment and lived a crime-free life before being caught in the late 1990s.

Brooks Egerton

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