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Man in prison for 29 years to be freed after Cook County prosecutors drop charges

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau,

66-year-old man is expected to walk free Tuesday after spending nearly 30 years in prison for a double murder he has long insisted he did not commit.

Arthur Brown’s release was made possible after Cook County prosecutors reversed course, announcing at a morning court hearing that they have dropped the charges.

According to his lawyer, Brown was 37 and had no criminal history when he was arrested for a fatal fire in 1988 on Chicago’s South Side. He was convicted of the double murder and arson and sentenced to life in prison.

Jubilant family members crowded the halls of the Leighton Criminal Court Building, hugging and waiting for Brown’s anticipated release from custody later Tuesday afternoon.

It was a moment they had anticipated for nearly three decades.

“It feels very much like I’m in a bubble,” said Carmece Barrow, 56, Brown’s niece. “It’s real, but it’s not real. We’ve cried so many times together. We’ve prayed so many times together.”

Last month Judge Joseph Claps tossed out Brown’s conviction and ordered a retrial after concluding that prosecutors at a second trial in 2008 had made multiple false arguments to the jury and Brown’s lawyer failed to raise those issues on appeal.

Earlier this month, prosecutors said at a hearing that they would fight the judge’s decision. But Tuesday, the state’s attorney’s office announced it would not attempt to retry Brown after all, dropping the charges against him.

Ronald Safer, one of Brown’s attorneys, said the reversal came after his team appealed directly to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and her top deputies last week. The prosecutors then dug into records and acted with “lightning speed,” Safer said.

“They’re convinced he’s innocent after reading the record and analyzing the case,” Safer said.

A spokeswoman for Foxx did not immediately comment on the reasons for the office’s change of heart.

Brown maintained his innocence through two trials, multiple appeals and lengthy post-conviction proceedings.

Claps’ decision to toss Brown’s conviction hinged largely on false statements made by prosecutors at his second trial.

Prosecutors repeatedly told the jury that Chicago police found the gas can used in the arson after speaking to Brown, strongly implying that only Brown’s confession could have led them to the discovery.

But a Chicago police detective testified at the first trial that the gas can had been discovered near the video store that had been torched — well before the detective had spoken to Brown, Claps noted in his ruling.

“(Police) had the gas can in their possession hours before Arthur was even talked to by the police,” Safer told reporters Tuesday.

In calling for a new trial, Claps also faulted attorneys who represented Brown in the appeals process for not highlighting the misstatements by prosecutors at trial.

When Brown’s attorneys contacted him this week to let him know of his imminent release, he was “overwhelmed,” Safer said.

“When he went into prison, nobody had a computer. There were no cellphones. The internet was still in Al Gore’s head,” Safer quipped. “It was a different world when Arthur went into jail, and now he comes out having had three decades taken from him by a system that was corrupted.”

Family members described Brown as mild-mannered, kind and skilled at construction work. Before his arrest, he built two bars on the South Side for his sister, who was in the restaurant business.

In prison, he built his own hot pots to boil water and cook food, said Barrow, who described her uncle as “an electrician extraordinaire.”

Brown was picked up by police after a suspicious fire in a video store spread to a neighboring shop, killing two people sleeping in a makeshift office.

At his first court appearance, a judge ordered him held without bail after prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty. Brown collapsed in the middle of the courtroom, according to a Tribune story at the time.

“I’m just emotional,” Brown said then. “I’ve never been in a courtroom before.”

At his first trial in 1990, Brown, who did odd jobs and maintenance work for stores around the neighborhood, testified that he got a call the night of the fire about the video store being burglarized. Brown, who had installed front and back doors with burglar bars at the video store, testified that he went to secure the door of the building and then left, court documents show.

Brown was arrested a short time later, and police beat him into confessing, he testified at his first trial.

Based largely on his alleged confession, Brown was convicted and given the life sentence.

Years later, another man, James Bell, confessed to the arson, leading to Brown being granted a second trial. At the 2008 retrial, Bell, testifying for the defense, said he broke into the video store — he believed Brown owned it and he owed him money — but he found only a few dollars in change.

Bell testified he decided to torch the store in retribution, according to court documents.

But a jury found Bell’s testimony unconvincing. Prosecutors had alleged that the two colluded to fabricate the story while both were in prison together. Brown was again convicted of the double murder and sentenced to life in prison.

But in the 30 years Brown has been behind bars, he never lost faith in his innocence, his family said.

“He stayed strong for us,” said Robert Jones, 63, Brown’s nephew.

“His mother taught us to love God and trust God. I’m sure she’s looking (down),” Jones said as he began to weep.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @crepeau

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