According to Amnesty International, the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crimes, and it claims innocent lives. Its research shows that 140 people have been released from death rows in the U.S. due to evidence of wrongful conviction since 1973, and the 14 states without capital punishment have homicide rates at or below the national rate. Harris County, Texas, leads the nation in death row executions, according to The Death Penalty Information Center, though capital punishment there is on the decline. Still, since 2010, 99.5 percent of U.S. counties sentenced fewer people to die than Harris County. Alexandria-based lawyer Brian W. Stolarz was part of the legal team that got the most recent death row inmate in Harris County, Alfred Dewayne Brown, exonerated. And his new book, Grace and Justice on Death Row, walks readers through a detailed account of the 2003 double homicide for which Brown was sentenced to die—even though he wasn’t even present at the crime scene.
Stolarz, a self-avowed Catholic, shines a spotlight on the injustices that landed Brown in prison and nearly took his life, including witness harassment, prosecutorial misconduct, withheld evidence, a now-defunct Grand Jury selection system that reeked of conflicts, and the disturbingly low wages paid to lawyers who defend the poor.
The book begins with the events of the April 2003 shooting— offering a detailed account of Brown’s crime-ridden neighborhood and some of its inhabitants trying to survive by working for minimum wage, robbing stores, and dealing drugs.
From the beginning, it’s clear Brown is innocent, but Stolarz takes the reader on an interesting and infuriating ride toward his incarceration. Brown’s girlfriend says he was at her house at the time of the shooting, but she changes her story after the prosecution threatens her and locks her up on trumped-up perjury charges. Other supposed friends of Brown throw him under the bus for various reasons, including fear of their own incarceration and promises of reward money. Though Brown is ultimately determined to have mental disabilities, a supposed “expert” manipulates mental health assessment data to say what the prosecutors want to hear.
No spoilers here about how the case goes wrong and is eventually righted—Brown was held on death row until June 8, 2015—but it’s worth noting that Stolarz includes some chilling comments about capital punishment from the late Antonin Scalia, including this one: “One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation.”
But the book has its faults. It loses some steam when Stolarz writes about his own life, his Catholicism, and superfluous references to how horrible he’s feeling during the years he works on the writ of habeas corpus—the process by which Brown is eventually exonerated. You sometimes get the impression that Brown’s freedom is more about Stolarz than Brown, and the book suffers from too much self-congratulating.
There’s also a dizzying telling and re-telling of what actually happened at the crime scene. It all gets a bit complicated and muddy, but this storytelling flaw doubles as a strength in light of the morass of a justice system that appears to be in place in Texas. If you get lost in the sequence of events—and the details surrounding the multiple miscarriages of justice—it’s possible the witnesses, the families of the victims, and the jury were likewise mired in confusion and obfuscation.
Stolarz cites some star reportage by Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle, who won a Pulitzer for her work on Brown’s case. And the book’s final plea to abolish the death penalty—or at least to establish reforms in all states that require DNA evidence linking the accused to the crime—seems like a no-brainer. Stolarz also makes a compelling argument for increased funding for attorneys who defend the poor, an improved social service system for death row exonerees, and disbarment and criminal investigation for prosecutors who deliberately withhold evidence in death row cases, as happened in Brown’s case.