Jeffrey Brown will do anything for his brother. He will kill a hot Wednesday evening in late June at his brother’s house, plucking trash from the yard, picking the weeds, trimming the bushes, answering the phone, keeping an eye on his brother’s young daughter, and scratching his brother’s dog behind the ears. When I meet him, he is wheeling out his brother’s lawn mower, ready to manicure his brother’s yard in even, neat rows.
I am here looking for Jeffrey’s brother, Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., a former Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) detective and narcotics expert at the center of the biggest perjury scandal in the history of the D.C. criminal courts. But Johnny is not home.
“You just missed him,” Jeffrey says. He hovers over me, tall and relaxed, his voice deep and thick as a Bible. His brother has the same voice, Jeffrey says. In the old days back in their Mackinaw City, Mich., neighborhood, Jeffrey says the two were known as “the Voices” when they sang in school choirs.
“You know we’re close in age?” Jeffrey asks. He pauses dramatically after every sentence, to touch my shoulder, to underscore the brotherly love. “I’m always there for him—he’s always been there for me.”
I believe him. And Lord knows Johnny needs his brother’s love right now, as he prepares to begin a two-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in February to eight counts of perjury, for lies he told about his background while testifying as an expert drug witness.
Jeffrey seems born to follow Johnny, to talk about Johnny when he can’t speak for himself, to cut Johnny’s grass when he doesn’t feel like it, to take on the reporter when Johnny’s dignity is exhausted. If Johnny had a guardian angel, of all the thousands of people he has met, the honor would certainly fall to Jeffrey.
I have come to the former detective’s dreary, red-brick, green-shuttered home, located just off Michigan Avenue NE, a block and a church from the District line, hoping to snare him for an interview. I want to hear the story before Johnny slips on the prison blues. I want him to explain why he threw away a sterling 19-year record as the most sought-after expert drug witness in the region by telling lies on the stand. I want to know if he’s troubled by all the jailed drug dealers—it could be dozens, or scores, or hundreds—whose convictions might now be overturned because the star witness against them told lies: stupid lies, boastful lies, lies not about the details of any particular criminal case, but about his own credentials and academic degrees he never earned. Lies he didn’t need to tell.
But Johnny is not home. Jeffrey tries paging his brother, using, he notes, a special “family-only code.” Johnny quickly returns the page, and within a few moments, the two brothers are talking cell to cell. Two small garbage bags billow out from Jeffrey’s waistband. His navy-blue Nautica hat is soaked with sweat. They are talking logistics, lawn care, and when the older brother will return home. “All right, brother, I love you,” Jeffrey says, his mouth stretching into a grin as wide as a Cadillac.
“I think he just wanted to live up to everyone’s idea of him,” Jeffrey says of his brother. “The glamour of the judges and lawyers looking up to him. He believed the hype. He got carried away—that’s all. It was a stupid thing….He didn’t have to do it. I don’t know why he did it. I really don’t.”
Johnny, I later discover, doesn’t have a brother. There is no Jeffrey. The man gardening at Johnny’s home is Johnny.
Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr. is a very good liar.
The job description for an expert drug witness is simple enough: Take the witness stand, swear an oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but, recite a resume, and then explain how drugs are packaged, distributed, and sold. Every once in a while, however, a particular personality far exceeds the mundane expectations for an expert witness and lights up a courtroom. That’s the kind of witness Brown was, a master at connecting the dots from drug to dealer to cynical District jury—and making it all riveting.
Brown testified in more than 4,000 trials in 26 jurisdictions and 112 cities, some as far away as Trinidad and Tobago. In the District, he was the prosecution’s favorite drug expert, the closer. Even defense attorneys fell hard for Brown’s dog-and-pony show.
“He would smile. He would make eye contact that would make a hypnotist blush,” remembers Colin Dunham, former president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. “The words that came off his tongue had the gold standard attached to them. They seemed to be the unvarnished and complete truth.”
Except the part about his credentials.
In July 1999, the U.S. Attorney’s Office learned that Brown had made up a crucial bit of his testimonial rap: his educational background. Since the early ’80s, Brown had been telling juries that he had a degree in pharmacology from Howard University, that he was a board-certified pharmacist in the District, and that he had dispensed medicines for area drugstores. All of it was pure fiction.
But it made for a good story. Brown greased the truth, blending fiction and nonfiction into his testimony when the moment fit, dressing up a curriculum vitae that was already chock-full of real departmental gold stars. So what if those diplomas and certificates weren’t really his?
Lying became part of a job that increasingly brought him celebrity. Colleagues gave him a deferential nickname: “Master Jehru.” But Brown didn’t just upgrade his education. He lied about other points on his resume, too. And at least once, he made up a fact or two.
According to trial transcripts, Brown claimed to have served on the MPD’s Homicide Branch in the mid-’70s as a detective for two-and-a-half years. Yet there is no record in his personnel file of any service in Homicide. Two detectives who worked homicide during the ’70s say Brown never served in the squad.
Brown also testified, court records show, that he retired from the department on Friday, May 5, 1995, and was rehired at his same rank, assigned to the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, the following Monday. But according to documents Brown himself filed this past year with the court, he was not rehired until a year and a half later, in late November 1996.
In a civil case last July, Brown testified about his knowledge of a gang known as the Rough Riders, according to deposition transcripts. But civil attorneys Peter Grenier and Saul Singer, who asked Brown about the gang during the deposition, say they had concocted the name on a lark. The Rough Riders didn’t exist. The attorneys had just wanted to test Brown’s veracity.
So there were lies sprinkled throughout years of Brown’s testimony. But none of the lawyers who worked the courtrooms along Indiana Avenue NW ever attempted to do any fact-checking. No one wanted to. Brown was an integral gear in the criminal court machinery.
“Everyone liked him—that’s what con men do,” says defense attorney Kenneth M. Robinson. “You looked at the tinsel and the Christmas lights, but never checked to see if it was a real tree.”
At one crucial moment, it appears, the MPD did check up on Brown: After he retired, the detective did, in fact, attempt to rejoin the department as a senior police officer three days later—a then-common if questionable practice that allowed a veteran to draw both a pension and a salary. But during a routine background check, the Recruiting Division discovered that Brown had lied on his application.
The recruitment officials found that Brown had failed to report certain financial matters, delinquent child support, and past traffic violations, according to Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer. They rejected his application to rejoin the force.
Yet in spite of that rejection, top police officials overruled the recruiting office’s judgment and Brown was brought back into the department.
Gainer says that the documents related to Brown’s background check appear to have been altered.
“It would appear that he should not have been [rehired],” Gainer says. “If I had the file on my desk today, I wouldn’t rehire him.”
As a result of the Washington City Paper’s inquiry into Brown’s personnel records, Gainer says that he has opened up an investigation into the matter. He adds that several officers have already come forward to say that they knew about Brown’s false statements but were transferred when they refused to falsify their reports. “You can see changes,” Gainer explains. “Lines omitted and expunged.”
Today, nearly five years after Brown was rejected by the recruiting office, 32 convicted defendants have brought motions for retrial on the basis of Brown’s perjury conviction. Three convictions have already been overturned. Dozens of additional motions are expected to follow. The full impact of Brown’s perjury could take years to emerge.
“The notion that a law enforcement officer sworn to uphold the law would lie about something so basic as his credentials is so incredible that it may explain how his deception could have remained undetected for so long,” U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis said in a written statement in response to a request for an interview. “Nevertheless, as we argued in our sentencing memorandum, the harm that Johnny St. Valentine Brown’s behavior has caused is immeasurable.”
“If you ask the question, I’ll give you my answer that is true.”—Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., Feb.7, 1997, on the witness stand in U.S. District Court
Brown was assigned as the police department’s resident narcotics expert in 1980, because no one else wanted the job. It wasn’t exactly a glamorous gig. As an expert witness, you spend your 9 to 5 stuck in court with little opportunity for overtime pay. You also miss out on the most satisfying part of police work: busting the bad guys. Instead, you wait for hurried lawyers and face down hostile juries.
Although Brown says he didn’t particularly want this new position, he never said no to anyone.
After joining the police force at the age of 28 during the post-riot recruiting drive in 1970, Brown played the good foot soldier, the straight arrow. He was an early-rising, clean-and-pressed-uniform type. He ate up extra-credit courses down at the police academy and soaked up each new task without any complaint—whether it was infiltrating Black Power groups or working intelligence with the Organized Crime and Rackets Unit. Office politics weren’t his thing.
Brown developed a knack for befriending not only his supervisors but even his suspects. Among dealers, he earned the affectionate, if somewhat imprecise, nickname of “Downtown Freddie Brown.” He would bust you, but he also wouldn’t mess you up for no reason. Once, he even received a letter of appreciation from an informant.
Brown’s work habits paid off from the start. After a few short years on the force, he was promoted to plainclothes detective. On Feb. 2, 1975, he was transferred to the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, where he would police the drug trade. He would remain there until the end of his career.
By then, the young detective had racked up commendations, glowing letters from impressed citizens, and two nominations as the department’s officer of the month. His personnel jacket contains no black marks, not even a tardy notice.
The transfer in 1980 from drug-beat detective to drug-beat expert was easy. Brown had a gift for making people like and trust him. He burrowed himself into the job of becoming a courtroom star. He bought fancy cars (alternating between Jags and Corvettes) and parked them right in front of the courthouse. On the witness stand, he buttoned up in fancy $1,000 suits from Hickey Freeman and Armani. He looked good. He could get away with things like that.
Brown had a James Earl Jones voice, teeth white as whipped cream, and the relaxed demeanor of someone who always seemed to have all the answers, but no one seemed to hate him for it. He was charmed and charming. To quote several lawyers, he was the “complete package,” possessing the essential do-re-mi of the job: brains, looks, and affability. One defense attorney compared him to Superfly.
In Superior Court and District Court, people get to know each other real fast. If you are a cop who makes a habit out of “testilying,” word will get around. But Brown was never known as biased. He occupied that narrow space between being a cop’s cop and being an impartial witness.
Because Brown was a cop who was both articulate and convincing, he got instant points. He could rattle off stats on typical drug buys in both dollar and milligram amounts, work in street slang, figure out what percentage of crack was water, and inform jurors that it takes a dealer 30 minutes to cook up a “good batch of crack cocaine,” according to court transcripts.
Off the stand, Brown made friends with both sides of the criminal bar. He would advise defense attorneys and lecture at area law schools. In the words of Robinson, the detective wasn’t “the automatic government whore.” On the stand, he was feared. Not a single attorney interviewed for this story bragged about smashing Brown’s testimony flat. It just didn’t happen.
“Jehru was able to make that thing come alive,” remembers Kay Winfree, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office from 1980 to 1999 who is now working with the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office. “He was spellbinding. In drug cases that tended to be routine, he was the most interesting witness that the U.S. Attorney’s Office put on….He was absolutely critical. We would have to shuffle [our schedule] to wait for Jehru to testify. He was in demand. He would be going out of one courtroom and go into the next.”
Unlike many officers who testify in courtrooms, Brown didn’t come off as defensive or suspicious. He used the witness stand as a stage, wove sentences like spider webs, and always circled back to his main theme, making sure the jury understood his every word. So what if most of what he said he repeated over and over in almost every case? So what if he had his own favorite, corny lines like, “Guns and drugs go together like a horse and carriage”? He wasn’t subtle, but courtrooms aren’t supposed to be.
Alan Strasser, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, from 1980 to 1991, says that juries never made their love for Brown a secret. “He walked in [to a courtroom] and I heard two women jurors say, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’” Strasser remembers. “I could tell what sort of impact he was going to have on the jury.”
In a Feb. 20, 1983, performance rating from his supervisor, Brown received five “excellent” ratings and three “exceptional” marks—for his ability to think clearly, communicate orally, and meet police standards of “bearing, dress, courtesy and emotional control and [enhancing] the image of the Department.”
“Detective Johnny Brown is a very dedicated and loyal employee,” his boss wrote. “In his present assignment as Court Expert, he must deal with Judges, U.S. Attorneys and other court officers. He has handled this assignment very efficiently. He is proving to be an asset to the Department in this position.”
Still, there were plenty of officers whose bullshit detectors went off every time they saw Brown. “He could have been a vacuum salesman if he wasn’t a cop,” says one former police official who asked not to be named. “He was one of the slick guys. ‘Ma’am, you’ve just won a million dollars if you buy this comb or hairbrush from me.’”
Retired Detective Jeffery Greene says that although Brown was a decent enough guy, people knew just by his demeanor that things didn’t add up. “He was an actor,” Greene says. “He wasn’t a policeman. People in Narcotics had the same feelings: that he was all flash, that he was no substance, that he didn’t get his hands dirty. I thought he was just up [on the witness stand] bullshitting….#The average cops were jealous of the guy’s credentials, or they didn’t believe him.”
“I have a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy. I have been a board-certified pharmacist since 1968, which means that I receive, maintain, compound, and dispense narcotic as well as non-narcotic substances per prescription.”—Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., on the witness stand before Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on Oct. 22, 1996, in U.S. District Court
No one inside the courtroom suspected Brown of fabricating his education. But by the mid-’80s, one private defense attorney suspected Brown of perplexing dishonesty. Henry Asbill says the detective had agreed to freelance and testify for the defense in a drug case in Baltimore. Throughout the early part of the trial, Brown kept in touch with Asbill by phone and pager. But when the detective was supposed to testify, the phone calls suddenly stopped, Asbill says. And Asbill’s client was convicted.
“I was left holding the bag because Brown disappeared on me,” Asbill says. The whole experience seemed weird to the attorney. Brown had often boasted in past court proceedings that he had testified for both prosecution and defense, claiming to have spoken on behalf of the defense in 500 trials. Asbill was mad enough to subpoena Brown for a post-trial hearing in Baltimore. At the hearing, Asbill asserts, the detective lied.
“He claimed that he told me point-blank that he could never be an expert for the defense,” Asbill remembers. “Lie after lie after lie. I didn’t have anything to do with him after that.”
There were no other red flags until 1995, when Brown retired from the police force and then re-applied—the peculiar turn of events that Gainer is now investigating.
Questions about Brown surfaced again less than three years later. In January 1998, the D.C. Council hired Mark H. Tuohey III as a special counsel to conduct six hearings before its Special Committee on Police Misconduct and Personnel Management. As Tuohey worked to hire a staff of investigators, he sought opinions on whether he should ask Brown to join his team. He was told by several advisers that Brown couldn’t be trusted, according to two sources close to Tuohey’s investigative team.
Brown’s rehiring, as well as other cases of alleged cronyism in police hiring, was brought up indirectly during one of the hearings, on March 27, 1998. Then-Lt. Corey Sharkey, a supervisor in the recruiting division, testified at length about the allegedly corrupt hiring practices of the department’s upper brass. She told the council that there were instances when both recruits and senior police officers were rejected by her division but subsequently hired anyway.
Although Sharkey did not name any individual officers during her public testimony, two sources with intimate knowledge of the hearings say that she explicitly identified Brown in private conversations with Tuohey and his investigative team.
Asked about this incident, Tuohey says that, after checking his files, he can find no mention of Brown in his notebooks. “Could she have raised it?” Tuohey asks. “I suppose she could have. If it was raised, it was more than likely passed on to [the MPD’s] Internal Affairs.”
So by the spring of 1998, the high-ranking police officials who had decided to rehire Brown, at least one defense attorney, and the D.C. Council’s special prosecutor all possessed information that cast doubts on Brown’s truthfulness. Yet Brown continued to testify under oath as an expert witness in criminal cases. He continued to work unchallenged.
“I dispense drugs for CVS, Peoples, Giant Food, Safeway.”—Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr. testifying before Judge Judith Retchin on July 9, 1999, in D.C. Superior Court
Peter Grenier began his questioning of Brown simply enough: “How are you? Could you tell us, please, for the record, your full name?”
Grenier, a civil attorney, was representing Terry Butera, the mother of Eric Butera, a police informant killed in 1997 while aiding in the investigation of that July’s Starbucks triple homicide. The attorney was suing the District for negligence in Eric Butera’s death, and the city had called in Brown to be deposed as an expert witness. So Grenier had a lot riding on his questions.
Grenier worked slowly and cordially on that morning, June 22, 1999. He had never met Brown nor heard of him before working on the Butera case. On the sixth question, he asked Brown: “Tell me your highest level of education reached and when you reached it.”
“Yes.” Brown replied. “Well, my highest level of education would be a doctorate, 1972, in the field of pharmacology, Howard University.” The detective went on to say that he had graduated from Howard with an undergraduate degree in “pharmacy” and had obtained a master’s degree in the field as well.
After the deposition ended, Grenier then did what he says he always does—what every prosecutor and defense attorney before him had failed to do. He checked Brown’s background. He and Singer called Howard University for verification of Brown’s degrees, providing Brown’s name and Social Security number.
LaVerne M. Hill Flanagan, Howard’s director of records and articulation, gave them a definitive answer in the form of a short letter dated June 30. She wrote: “I regret to advise that this office has not been able to locate a record under the name as shown above.” The name shown above was Brown’s.
“It was an exhilarating thing,” remembers Singer. “To catch someone like this after all these years and all these cases.”
Citing Brown’s perjured testimony, Grenier and Singer promptly filed a motion to remove the detective as an expert witness. They were successful. On July 15, 1999, police officials placed Brown on administrative leave with pay. He was earning $46,700 a year as a senior police officer on top of his $65,000 annual pension. On Aug. 4, 1999, Brown resigned from the police force a second time.
Last February, Brown was charged with eight counts of perjury. He pleaded guilty, and in June, he was sentenced to two years in prison. He remains free pending an appeal of the sentence.
At his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court before a sympathetic judge, Henry H. Kennedy, Brown pleaded for mercy. “I was a member of the law enforcement community for 29 years, Your Honor, and I don’t think there has ever been a moment—and even now—that I didn’t respect the criminal justice system or the judicial system,” Brown said. “It was my life.”
Brown continued: “I wake up every morning wondering if it’s a dream. No, it is not. It is reality….I can’t find the words to describe how I feel or how much remorse I feel for what I have done. I know if I had the power, I would change all of this, but I cannot.”
Brown never did give a definitive reason for why he lies. “I’m sure that part of it was ego,” Brown told the judge that day. “I have always been a very positive person, but I am a human being. I am [a] human being, and I have my shortcomings.”
“I attended Howard University School of Pharmacy and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy. I’ve been a practicing pharmacist since 1968.”—Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., testifying before Judge Thomas A.Flannery on March 10, 1997 in U.S. District Court
Brown is not unglued, or angry, or anxious. If anything, the former detective seems profoundly calm, as if each day his internal weather comes up 72 degrees Fahrenheit. He’s a “people” person. Back when he was working, when defense attorneys hammered him on the stand, he came off polished, never pissed. He accepted the fact that cases against the worst drug dealers in the world could be lost: Sometimes he couldn’t do anything about it.
And on a Friday evening in late June, almost a year since his last day as Master Jehru, outside his house with a WeedWacker in hand, he accepts that sometimes things don’t work out as advertised. Even WeedWackers.
The device’s bright-green cord, the one that’s supposed to whip around very fast clipping errant weeds and grass, keeps snapping and unspooling. Buzzzz. Snap. Buzzzz. Snap. So Brown flips the thing upside down and puts the plastic floss back into its place. Like a yo-yo string. Just so. He coaxes.
Brown eases the neon string between his fingers. Feeds it back in place. “Hang tough while I rock and roll for a minute,” he says, cranking the weed whacker into high gear.
Buzzzz. Buzzzz. Snap. After three more breakdowns, he finally gets the thing humming and clears his front sidewalk of weeds and too-tall grass. To make sure his sidewalk is truly trimmed, Brown crouches down and eyeballs his handiwork. Perfect.
I’m thinking: When do I get a chance to confront him? Two days after meeting “Jeffrey,” I have come back to Johnny’s upper Northeast house for a return visit. This time, I know that Jeffrey exists only inside Johnny’s mind—that Jeffrey is really Johnny.
But Brown is still operating in pretend-brother mode. “Still haven’t gotten together with him?” he says of Johnny. “Let me page him for you.” And he does.
I’ve made some calls, myself. I’ve spoken with Johnny Brown’s attorney—he hasn’t heard of any brother. “I can’t recall” were his exact words. I’ve spoken with Brown’s mother, Mildred Palm: “Does Johnny have a brother named Jeffrey?” I asked. “Not that I know of,” she said.
And only a few moments ago, in front of the house, Johnny Brown’s preteen daughter wrinkled her nose when I referred to the man trimming his overgrown weeds as “Jeffrey.” “That’s daddy,” she said. “Johnny.”
It’s silly, but part of me still believes I am really talking to Jeffrey. When his “brother” returns the page—later I learn it was a friend named Hank—I go along with the charade. I even agree to meet Johnny downtown for dinner. I know it’s all a lie. I fucking know. Yet Brown is such an assured actor, so seductive. Armed with a notebook full of facts proving otherwise, I still find myself falling for his act.
Who is this guy? Why does he keep returning to the safe fiction of the Good Brother? This scene is too pathetic, his lie so simple to check. As Jeffrey, he gave me what he said was his home phone number. I mean, it was his mother’s number.
There are people who lie to get away with things. Hit-and-run drivers. Credit-card forgers. Used-car dealers who polish lemons. Con men who swindle old ladies out of their savings. Their lies are bad enough, we think, that they must feel guilty, but at least the purpose of the lies is clear.
Then there are the people who slip into their lies, wear them, embrace them, believe in them. The lies themselves don’t build character, or even define character: They make up a whole new character on their own.
Brown wore his lies like his Hickey Freemans. They were comfortable, perfect to walk in and wear inside a courtroom. Seventy-thousand-dollar champagne-colored Lexus-type lies. Such lies, smooth and effortless, are harder to understand. Especially if the liar has a badge pinned to his chest. Especially if he’s already undeniably successful.
What makes a lie seem truthful is how good you are at selling it. Brown was the best. No one noticed when he slipped his false credentials in between all his legitimate accolades and accomplishments, from serving as a policy analyst to “Drug Czar” William Bennett to working as a narcotics consultant and investigator to Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
“He was so good nobody questioned him,” says one former police official, who asked not to be named. “Somebody that sharp on the stand, you want him off as quick as you can. They call that testimony ‘boilerplate’ because it heats everything up.”
Prosecutors insist that it was the police department’s job to monitor Brown. “As far as the narcotics experts, the police department promotes them,” says prosecutor Amy Jeffress, who worked the perjury case against Brown. “They select the officers. So they choose the detectives, and we rely on them. We don’t conduct an independent investigation.”
But one official at the U.S. Attorney’s Office believes there is more than enough blame to go around. The official says that although he doesn’t believe his office knew about Brown and chose to look the other way, it often defers to the police too easily.
“People take for granted when a badge is flashed,” says the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he said he feared retribution from his superiors. “There’s legitimacy to that. I think many cops—many professionals—end up doing the same thing [as Brown]. They want to do what they think is helpful.” The prosecutor cites as an example a cop who says he saw a suspect drop drugs 6 to 8 feet away when the suspect was really 20 to 30 feet away. “I can imagine that Brown may have thought it was better for the jury to hear that he has a degree. Then I think it just snowballed.”
“Unfortunately, I think that perjury is more prevalent throughout the court system than we’d like to admit,” says retired Judge Curtis E. von Kann. “I think it gets particularly disturbing when it gets to law enforcement officers. I don’t know how [Brown] got through the system.”
Or at least I think I know. “Jeffrey” Brown gives me his cell phone number, which I immediately check to reveal—surprise—a disconnected number. That’s enough. With the weed-whacking finished, Brown says he has to go home to join his family for dinner.
I walk to my car and take a moment to count to 10, to yell at myself for my gullibility, to summon the necessary courage. Then I jog back to where Brown is still standing. He doesn’t look surprised to see that I have returned. A gold chain hangs on his chest, winking at the fading sun. Smile perfect.
“OK. You are not Jeffrey,” I tell Brown. “You don’t have a brother.”
He denies it. “Man, your mind, it’s playing tricks on you,” Brown says, laughing and making the universal sign for craziness—swirling his index finger around the side of his head.
Then I tell him whom I have spoken to, the court records I have checked, all the research I have done. “I talked to your mother,” I tell him. “She’s never heard of Jeffrey. You’re Johnny.”
“You might be right,” Brown says, pausing a moment. A huge goddamn grin spreads across his face. “Johnny and Jeffrey are one and the same.”
“Yes. Well, my highest level of education would be a doctorate, 1972, in the field of pharmacology, Howard University.”—Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., during the Butera case deposition on June 22, 1999
Eric Wilkins shares a cell with five other men at the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institute in Virginia. He has a bottom bunk. He has been there since the early ’90s, serving a 12-year sentence on his conviction for distribution of 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. He’d like to get out.
Wilkins thinks he’s found his ticket—Brown testified at his trial. When Inmate No. 17511016 read about Brown’s perjury last July, he had a lot to think about. Would Brown’s perjury taint his conviction? Enough for a new trial? Enough for him to just be released?
“I didn’t know if this changed me,” Wilkins says in a phone interview from Petersburg. “What good would it do in my favor? I called my lawyer right away.”
After speaking with his attorney, Jane Carol Norman, Wilkins eventually filed a motion for a new trial at the beginning of April. Wilkins’ appeal is currently pending. “I hope they rule in my favor,” Wilkins says. “So I can go home.”
Wilkins has joined a large—and growing—club. Because Brown testified in more than 4,000 cases, there’s a huge pool of inmates with potential “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. News of Brown’s perjury spread predictably fast through the prison system. As soon as Grenier filed the court papers exposing Brown’s lies during the Butera deposition, he got a flood of collect calls. Dozens of inmates have contacted his office since then, Grenier says.
But there are many more people sent to prison in part because of Brown who need to be contacted by attorneys. Finding cases—some of them very old cases—in which Brown testified is an arduous task in itself. Once cases are located, the people convicted in them must be found, too. Then transcripts must be ordered and analyzed to see if a worthy appeal can be made.
Brown’s perjury amounts to a potential loophole even though he never testified about the facts of specific cases. Instead, he provided the background information juries needed to convict drug defendants.
“It was the dumbest lie of all time,” says Billy Ponds, a defense attorney who has filed two motions for new trials so far.
Criminal defense attorneys are still in the process of looking for cases. After Brown’s lies came to light, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued letters to the D.C. Public Defender Service (PDS), the Federal Public Defender Service, and 60 prominent private attorneys to notify them of the potential for appeals. The office sent along a very short list of cases, which barely scratched the surface. Those letters set off a chain of other letters—to many former prosecutors and public defenders. On April 18, PDS sent out missives to its alumni. “No case is too old for us to investigate,” wrote Cynthia E. Jones, director of the PDS, adding that the office wouldn’t rule out filing appeals for clients who had already finished their sentences.
Ronald Sullivan Jr., general counsel for the PDS, estimates that the process could take years to finally play itself out. Although his office has filed only a handful of motions for new trials, Sullivan says the final number of appeals could be in the “dozens.” “His particular misstatements went to the heart of his police work,” Sullivan says of Brown. “This is pretty big. This represents a fairly substantial perjury case.”
Although the U.S. Attorney’s Office has already successfully argued that Brown’s particular testimony wasn’t critical in six of the appeals, convicts still have reason to believe their appeals are warranted. One judge, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes that although there is a high bar for getting a new trial, all attorneys who have lost cases in which Brown testified should file appeals.
“I would not fault the lawyer for filing [an appeal],” the judge says. “I can imagine issues if they didn’t. Is it safer for a judge to say it didn’t matter than [for a lawyer]? I assume we are going to get a lot of motions.”
Three convicts have won appeals that have led to freedom. In one, U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin ruled last December for a new trial in the case of Raymond A. Jones Jr. Jones was convicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin. Sporkin ruled in favor of Jones despite the fact that Brown did not give false credentials during his testimony against Jones.
Sporkin wrote: “The evidence that Brown lied in a deposition about his education and expert witness qualifications would certainly have been impeaching of Brown’s credibility. More than that though, the evidence would have kept Brown from taking the stand at all….Without Brown’s testimony, the independent evidence against Jones is highly circumstantial.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office elected to not give Jones a new trial; he was released instead after having served almost a year behind bars. On June 2, Darvis Dingle joined Jones, becoming a free man after spending 60 months in jail. Dingle had been convicted of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine.
Wilkins would like to be next. “I was penalized for what I did,” he says. “He should be penalized for what he did. It just shows the disregard for the system. I hope he gets what he got coming to him.”
“Before God we are equally wise and equally foolish.”—Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., on his answering machine
I spot Brown walking through a row of houses, taking a shortcut from his house through a few back yards and onto Eastern Avenue NE. Over his shoulder he is carrying a 5-iron golf club. Brown has finally agreed to meet me for an interview; he told me to meet him in some woods behind a big, red-brick, fake colonial-looking bank. Woods plus 5-iron? I’m not sure what to expect.
Brown acts as if he doesn’t see me or the City Paper photographer I’ve brought along. He barrels into a grassy patch between some rocks and old roots and leafy green trees. We follow, not saying a word. Eventually, he acknowledges us, agrees to a few photos (as long as his face is obscured), and continues to walk. He drops a golf ball into the tall grass and takes an easy swing. We then search for the ball. He says he comes here to bash balls whenever he can. For the most part, he proceeds in silence. Maybe he wants to show me how far he’s fallen—that he’s forced to chip around in some woods with no holes, no flags, and no pretty lakes.
But I have a feeling that Brown still makes it out to the links.
Although I know a lot about Brown’s courtroom behavior, and his perjury, I really know very little about the man himself: He is 6 feet tall, 165 pounds, 57 years old; is remarkably trim except for a small gut; has a beard that’s gone white at his chin; joined the police force in 1970, resigned in 1999; married twice, divorced once; has a two-car garage; has three kids; likes Little Anthony records; when doing yard work prefers Hawaiian shirts; could go to prison at any moment. And, according to a psychological report taken as part of his defense strategy this past spring, Brown suffers from low self-esteem and tries desperately to please others.
“Mr. Brown’s understanding of his coping responses to distress and conflict (the use of denial, minimization, and omission) appear to be clearly lacking in mature insight,” wrote Lois B. Valladares, his therapist for the pre-sentencing workup. “Without that insight, his ability to appropriately and functionally define and resolve stressors and to restructure flawed core beliefs will continue to be compromised.”
I agree. Although he stood me up numerous times over the course of several weeks, he never explicitly said no to an interview, and he sprinkled into his rain checks a little praise. He would call me “dude,” and say things like, “I feel like I already know you. I can’t wait to talk.” And when he wasn’t kissing my butt, he was calling me just to let me know he’d call again. I was frustrated, pissed, but still fascinated. A week before our final meeting, he took me on a 20-minute walk through his perfectly trimmed neighborhood.
I had been sitting outside his house waiting for him to pull up. When he did, he wasn’t happy. It was the only time I truly saw him shaken. “If my [family] catches me with you…” he said, not finishing the sentence. “You know—out of sight, out of mind.”
He wanted me to know that this was hard for him, that his pretending to be Jeffrey was merely a defensive move, that talking about a mistake that had effectively destroyed his life was not an easy thing to do. During the rest of our walk that day, Brown kept his thoughts to himself.
But on this warm Friday afternoon in early July, Brown is finally opening up a bit, trying to explain the reasons for all the lies. Sitting on some exposed tree roots, he takes his time answering my questions, giving each its own dramatic pause. Occasionally, he lights up a Salem 100.
“I saw my world crumble around me,” Brown says. “You want to know why that happened?”
He goes on to explain how he got caught after 19 years. He says he thought, even before the fateful Butera deposition, that Butera’s civil attorneys had reviewed his personnel file. So he knew he couldn’t lie. But he got mad, he says. He says he was mad at the way Grenier treated the corporation counsel who was defending the city in the suit. He just didn’t like his attitude. “I was very angry,” he says. “I let my anger take me over the edge. I think in the back of my mind, I thought, I’ll stick it to him.”
So Brown boasted about his doctorate. “I ended up sticking it to myself,” he says with an awkward smile. “That was it. Otherwise, it never would have happened.”
Brown has no problem explaining the chemical processes that occur in the manufacture of crack cocaine. But when talking about himself, he is less than articulate. There are long pauses, deep breaths, and a lot of obfuscation. If he has to talk about the impact of getting caught, he simply casts out the usual cliches. He says he puts his faith in God, that his pain is like a knot in his stomach, that he is terribly sorry for the trouble he caused his family, that he is living a nightmare.
On the subject of why he lied about his credentials, Brown refers to what he told me in the guise of his brother. Fame did him in, he says, adding that now, when he watches programs about fallen celebrities, he can empathize. “I played into the scheme of things,” he says. “I knew I was good at what I did. I had no doubts about that. People would praise me for that and da, da, da. I allowed my ego to get the best of me. Maybe I feel that that was the only way to validate the expertise that I had: #I needed paper.” He says he never expected to get caught, never felt a twinge of doubt about it.
He professes uncertainty as to why he told the other lies. He admits he wasn’t assigned to the homicide squad, but he says he was detailed there. His rejection by the Recruiting Division was a misunderstanding, he says. If there wasn’t actually a gang called the Rough Riders, he says, he was sure there had to be somewhere. “You name a name, I guarantee you, it’s on the list,” he says. “Any name you could imagine. I bet my life it was there.”
Soon, Brown is shifting the subject, bragging about his flashy suits, his cars, and his reputation—even quoting from a Washington Post profile from 1983. “I was known as the ‘flamboyant narcotics expert,’” he says. “That was just me. I didn’t put on any airs to be anybody. That was me. That was my style….Some guys even referred to me as ‘Master Jehru’ because they felt I knew the subject area so well.”
Now, Brown says, he feels very much alone. Facing people is tough. When he encounters friends and acquaintances, he says, they never mention the perjury case. He digs into the dirt with his 5-iron for emphasis. But I don’t buy his claims of solitude, especially because his cell phone and pager constantly buzz and beep every time we’ve met. Besides, he says, he has a calligraphy gig to do tonight—yes, he does calligraphy.
Most of all, Brown says, he misses going to court as an expert. He misses the attention, the confidence, being called Master Jehru. He could talk about those glory days forever. And I wouldn’t mind hearing about them, maybe over a beer sometime. Despite all the lies he has told, and the bitter consequences of those lies as drug dealers walk free from prison, I am still drawn to his charisma.
Except that I have this nagging feeling that he just doesn’t get it, still doesn’t truly understand what he did. My sympathy ends when he tells me he believes he’s got a guardian angel attached to his shoulder.
Swinging his 5-iron at pebbles in the bank’s parking lot, he works up an extended final boast. He talks about how he can cry at the drop of a hat—”Nine times out of 10 my eyes will well up”—that he can be quite the drama queen when he wants to be. There was that time when he spoke to inmates in prison. He had them in tears, too. And the room, a room full of prisoners—some of whom he had put away—well, all attention was on him. It was so quiet “you could hear cotton balls drop.”
At least that’s one audience he’ll likely get to play again. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.