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Making friends with a ‘murderer’ – and proving he’s innocent

By Colby Itkowitz

Alfred Dewayne Brown spent 10 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. During that time, he formed an unlikely friendship with a man who would eventually fight to set him free. 

Theirs was a great friendship that began across a bullet-proof glass window. Brian Stolarz was a fast talking, wisecracking 33-year-old lawyer from New Jersey who’d arrived to take a case pro bono. Alfred Dewayne Brown was on death row for murdering a cop.

Brown, mild-mannered, his voice barely above a whisper, insisted he was innocent. Stolarz looked in his eyes and believed him.

“I knew it like a shot to the heart,” Stolarz recalls now. “I saw him and felt something really deep in me like when you meet your spouse for the first time or hold your kid for the first time. It’s a truth that’s deep inside you.”

So Stolarz made a promise he didn’t know if he could keep. He promised to get Brown out.

Then Stolarz walked out into the parking lot of the Livingston, Texas prison and threw up.

Stolarz had done public defender work early in his career, but mostly misdemeanors and lesser felonies. He’d never had to prove the innocence of a convicted murderer.

If Stolarz failed, a man would lose his life.

Brown and Stolarz met in March 2007. Brown, then 25, had been charged in the 2003 death of a police officer and cashier during a botched robbery of a cash check store in Houston. He’d already been on death row for two years.

For a decade, Brown sat in solitude in his 60-square-foot single cell, interacting only with guards, relatives on occasional visits, perhaps an inmate through the walls. Once a day, he had been allowed to stand in an open air room a little larger than his cell to catch a glimpse of the sky.

People would ask him later how he managed not to become bitter, why he didn’t go crazy with rage as an innocent man locked up for so long. He would say he wasn’t entirely sure, but he did not. He focused on the day-to-day, he said, learning to read, drawing and doing yoga. He tried not to think about the life happening outside his cell.

And then Stolarz joined his visitor list. Over six long years, Stolarz and a team of lawyers from his former D.C. firm K&L Gates (he is currently a partner at LeClair Ryan in Alexandria, Va.) worked on Brown’s case, slowly uncovering the discrepancies, the missed opportunities.

Brown, who’d grown up poor and dropped out in the 9th grade, didn’t trust Stolarz initially. The legal system had betrayed him and he had no reason to believe this man wouldn’t do the same. Or that this lawyer wouldn’t just give up on him.

But month after month, year after year, Stolarz returned with drips of good news: a lead on a tip or a witness who had recanted. He always brought $20 in quarters to buy Brown a feast, usually packaged burgers and key lime pie, from the vending machine.

They’d eat across the glass panel and Stolarz would ask him about his life.

“I guess he started putting belief in me that this could actually happen,” Brown said. “He would come down to visit me and it wasn’t all about lawyer work, it was about me and him and what was going on.”

Stolarz asked Brown about growing up in Louisiana. Brown would tell stories about crawfishing and his grandmother. Mostly, he would harken back to the times he was happiest.

Back home in Alexandria, Va., Stolarz had a young wife, a toddler and a newborn. And he was juggling the pressures of a big law firm. But he said he never once considered abandoning Brown.

His children – he now has a third baby – have never known a world where Brown wasn’t part of it. He’d tell his kids Brown was in “time out” for something he didn’t do. Stolarz would come home from his regular trips to Texas and tell his wife, “I love this man.”

And so, with an unwavering faith in a man society had cast aside, Stolarz kept going.

The most difficult visits were on execution days as families filtered in to say final goodbyes. Stolarz put his hand on the glass and said to Brown, “That will never be you.”

Like the intensely popular true crime documentary “Making a Murderer,” there was plenty of reason beyond gut feeling to believe Brown was innocent. There was little hard evidence, just testimonies from a few witnesses challenging Brown’s alibi.

Several witnesses, including Brown’s live-in girlfriend, had been strong-armed by law enforcement to testify against him. A letter to Brown from someone with details of the crime absolved him, but Brown was illiterate and his lawyers didn’t investigate it, or tell him what it said. A phone record that showed Brown was home at the time of the crime was never entered into evidence or turned over to the defense team.

After years of trying, Stolarz succeeded in getting Brown’s girlfriend to recant her most damning testimony – that he wasn’t home at the time of the crime. But none of that was enough to get the District Attorney to reopen the case.

Then Stolarz received a phone call in 2013 he’d only fantasized about. A homicide detective was clearing out his garage and found a box of old case files. Included among them was a land-line phone record that confirmed Brown had made a call from his home exactly when he said he did. If he was home then his alibi checked out.

It was another 17 months before a judge agreed to a retrial and transferred Brown to a local jail.

The Houston Chronicle had also investigated the case, and its extensive series won a Pulitzer.

On June 8, 2015 – more than two years after the phone record had been found – the District Attorney determined there was “insufficient evidence” in Brown’s case and she had him released.

Stolarz was in his car when he heard the news. He was driving to pick up his daughter from elementary school when his phone rang. It was a defense lawyer from Texas at the press conference where the D.A. would set Brown free. Stolarz pulled over. The lawyer held up the phone up so he could hear in real time that Brown’s case was dismissed.

The sarcastic, rough-around-the-edges, son of a blue collar carpenter pulled over and wept.

He couldn’t get a flight out to Houston until the next morning. Brown was standing outside his sister’s apartment when Stolarz arrived. “Get over here,” Stolarz said, walking toward him. The men embraced in a bear hug. Brown lifted Stolarz off his feet. Stolarz grabbed his face, “Is it really you?” “It’s me, man,” Brown said.

“After not being able to have contact with anyone but a guard, but that’s with your hands behind your back, it feels real good,” he said. “It’s a big relief to really hold someone that you know who cares about you.”

Living now in Louisiana with his mother, Brown says he is not trying to make up for those 10 years he lost. He knows that he can’t. He’s just spending as much time as he can outdoors where there are no walls.

“I’m just living life as it comes,” Brown said. “I’m enjoying the moment. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m making fun for myself, I guess you can say. And bugging Brian.”

Stolarz is now Brown’s guide to life on the outside.

Before Brown’s first time on an airplane in October, he called Stolarz from the airport. He didn’t know how to check in. Stolarz stayed on the phone walking him through it. He’s helped Brown figure out smartphone technology. He’s counseled him on finding a career path. He’s fielded his media requests.

“Oh man, if I have a problem, I call him,” Brown said. “If I can’t figure something out I call him. We are actually brothers.”

Last week, Brown was in Washington visiting Stolarz for the second time since his release. He accompanied him to a talk Wednesday at George Washington University Law School. He sat in the front row as Stolarz flipped through a PowerPoint retelling every dramatic twist and turn of Brown’s case.

“I love you like a brother, ” Stolarz said, as he introduced Brown to the students in the room.

That night, the men had box seats at a Washington Wizards game. Brown was invited onto the court. He met star players and shot a few baskets. It was his first-ever NBA game.

The two plan to continue touring the country together telling their story at law schools. Stolarz will represent him if Brown sues the state.

But even if he doesn’t, there’s no question that their lives will be forever entwined.

When they’re together they’re like two school boys. Sitting side-by-side for an interview, they’d slap each other on the back, grasping hands, slinging an arm around the other’s shoulder.

“Folks say I saved his life, but he saved mine,” Stolarz said. Unlike Brown, he had been smoldering with anger as Brown languished in jail for a crime Stolarz was convinced he did not commit.

“When he came out he said, ‘I was innocent going in and innocent coming out and I have no hate in my heart for what they did to me.’ And that moment of beauty and forgiveness changed my life too.”

To honor the bond, Stolarz had come up with an idea. One afternoon in October, as Brown accompanied Stolarz to a presentation in Austin, Stolarz told Brown he had a surprise for him.

It was a moment he’d thought about for a long time, a promise he made to himself if Brown was ever freed.

He drove them to a tattoo parlor. When they emerged, on Stolarz’s shoulder and on Brown’s bicep, were matching tattoos of the scales of justice.

Above Brown’s was the number 154. Thanks to his friend, Brown had become the 154th death row inmate in the nation to be fully exonerated.

Originally published by the Washington Post on January 21, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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