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The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case that Shook the Texas Prison System, by Michael Berryhill (University of Texas Press, 2011). 244 pages, $29.95

Book review by Mel Motel

The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case that Shook the Texas Prison System opens with a Tony Judt quote about how truthfully embracing history is an uncomfortable process. Michael Berryhill’s engaging account of one man’s journey through the then-named Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) exposes Texas-style criminal justice during a time of revolution in the U.S. and its prisons. Berryhill’s true tale of a prisoner accused of killing two prison officials, and the three jury trials that resulted, reveals a history that is indeed uncomfortable – a history of resistance, reform and retaliation in Texas’ prison system.

The action of The Trials of Eroy Brown occurs on the heels of the pivotal 1980 Ruiz v. Estelle ruling, in which a federal judge (aptly named Judge William Justice) declared Texas prisons unconstitutional due to terrible and brutal conditions. Ruiz vindicated both prisoners and their advocates who had grieved systemic abuse and overcrowding in the TDC; the case also fueled prisoner activism and increased the public’s sympathy for the plight of the incarcerated.

It is shortly after the Ruiz ruling that Berryhill introduces 30-year-old Eroy Brown. Brown had arrived in prison in 1977 for the third time as an accessory to an armed robbery. Most of Brown’s adulthood had been spent as an addict and petty thief – a poor black man entangled in the criminal justice system since his teenage years. Brown’s rap sheet included convictions such as the one for which he served his second prison stint: burglarizing a department store for $27 worth of socks.

By 1981, Brown was a “trusty,” one of a cadre of prisoners who had “earned the confidence of authorities by their good behavior.” He was doing time at the Ellis Unit, a/k/a “The end of the road,” a prison stuffed with death row prisoners and men serving long sentences. Built in the 1960s, the Ellis Unit sits on the land of a former slave plantation, like many of the other prison units that cover the Texas landscape.

Most people involved can agree that on April 4, 1981, Ellis Unit Warden Wallace Pack and farm manager Billy Moore were killed by drowning and a gunshot to the head, respectively, after Moore brought Eroy Brown to speak with Pack regarding a comment Brown had made about furlough. Beyond that, what happened – and why – depends on whom you ask.

Brown’s attorney, Craig Washington, argues that “Brown was in fear of being thrown in the river because he had threatened to expose the thefts of ‘Master Moore.’” Reflects Michael Hinton, a prosecutor in Brown’s first trial, “The case seemed simple: a drug-crazed Negro had gone out of his mind,” a trope reminiscent of racial stereotypes from slave times. Both arguments alluded to the lasting legacy of the plantation-ruled South.

The author draws from diverse sources to reconstruct Brown’s three trials: a mistrial for the drowning of Pack (Berryhill calls it “a trial of a black field slave against the white master, with the house slaves testifying against him”); an acquittal for Pack’s murder at the second trial; and finally an acquittal for Billy Moore’s murder. Berryhill uses witness testimony, interviews with jurors and newspaper articles to reveal the perspectives of the many parties involved in the trials.

Interviews and testimonies detail the TDC’s enforcement of a dangerous hierarchy of prisoners. In addition to “trusties,” witnesses explain the “building tender” system, whereby prisoners acted as guards to keep other prisoners in line through violence and threats of violence. During Brown’s third trial, eighteen out of 21 witnesses testified that their lives had been threatened in prison, usually by building tenders. Not surprisingly, for every prisoner and former prisoner who mentioned the building tender system, a TDC official denied its existence or claimed ignorance.

Berryhill depicts his subjects as neither sinners nor saints, though he appears critical of the brutal Texas prison system and sympathetic to Brown’s defense. The author does not hide Brown’s follies, the bumbling prisoner witnesses or Brown’s lawyers – for example, the reader is privy to Washington breaking down in tears more than once during the proceedings.

Berryhill claims that Brown’s acquittals marked the “end of Jim Crow justice in Texas.”
Yet The Trials of Eroy Brown was published within a year of Michele Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness, which is well known within criminal justice activist circles. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.44].

So is Jim Crow justice really over in Texas, or does it persist? What impact did Brown’s trials have on Texas’ criminal justice system? What legacy did Judge Justice’s Ruiz ruling create for future prisoners?

Brown’s acquittal was a victory for both him and other Texas prisoners, and provided a spark for prison activists. But when 1 in 15 black men eighteen and older in the U.S. are in prison or jail today (compared with 1 in 106 white men eighteen and older), any claim that Jim Crow justice has collapsed should be viewed with skepticism. More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. – many of them victims of a Drug War that targets communities of color, or, more generally, victims of a system that strives to keep people poor and powerless (including other people of color and poor whites), to the benefit of the ruling class.

Even if using the term “Jim Crow” to describe today’s situation risks devaluing the history of the racist legal system that kept blacks exploited for almost a century after emancipation, our justice system is no more colorblind today than when Eroy Brown was serving time in Texas prisons in the 1970s.

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