Joyce Ann Brown
Joyce Ann Brown (Photo: Randy Belice)
The authorities discovered they’d charged the wrong Joyce Ann Brown, but the prosecution went forward—and she was sentenced to life
Joyce Ann Brown was convicted in October 1980 of the aggravated robbery of a North Dallas, Texas, fur store during which the owner of the store was shot to death, Joyce Ann Brown was exonerated in 1990 as a result of an investigation led by Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, New Jersey, organization dedicated to rectifying wrongful convictions in murder cases.
Two armed African-American women — one wearing pink pants and dark glasses, the other a navy blue jogging suit — entered Fine Furs by Rubin at about 1 p.m. on May 6, 1980, and ordered owner Rubin Danziger and his wife Ala to stuff furs into plastic trash bags. The woman in the pink pants then shot Rubin Danziger and shot at his wife but missed. Ala Danziger saved herself by telling the woman she was suffering from cancer and had only five weeks to live. "We'll just let you suffer," the woman said. With bags filled with furs, as Rubin Danziger lay on the floor clinging to life, the robbers fled in a brown 1980 Datsun.
The getaway car was found the next day and police discovered that it had been rented by someone named Joyce Ann Brown — whom they mistakenly presumed to be a 32-year-old Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas. Their suspicion was heightened when they learned that Brown worked at a fur store three miles from Fine Furs by Rubin. Police had a photo of her because she had a prior arrest for prostitution. From the photo, Ala Danzinger identified Brown as the accomplice of the woman who had shot her husband, the woman who had worn a blue jogging suit.
When Brown read in the May 8 Dallas Morning News that she was a suspect, she went to the police station. She was arrested and charged, and bond was set at $1 million. Police searched her home but found nothing linking her to the crime.
Meanwhile, police learned that the Joyce Ann Brown who had rented the car used in the crime was not the woman they had in custody. The one who rented the car was from Denver and had a Colorado driver's license. When police located her, she claimed that she had lent the rented car to a friend — and had seen neither the car nor the friend since.
Police launched a search for the friend, who was identified as Renee Michelle Taylor. In a search of Taylor's apartment, police found furs taken in the robbery, pink pants matching the description of those worn by the woman who shot Rubin Danziger, and a .22-caliber pistol that had not been cleaned after being fired. The police did not, however, find Taylor, who remained at large when prosecutors took the Dallas Joyce Ann Brown to trial in October 1980.
In addition to the tearful identification testimony of Ala Danziger, the prosecution sponsored the dubious testimony of a jailhouse snitch named Martha Jean Bruce, who claimed that Brown had admitted committing the crime when the two shared a jail cell. Bruce, who had recently been sentenced to five years in prison for attempted murder, denied that she had been promised leniency or anything else of value in exchange for her testimony. When asked about her criminal record, she failed to disclose that she had been convicted seven months earlier of making a false statement to a police officer.
Brown insisted that she was the victim of mistaken identity and presented a seemingly persuasive alibi defense. Several witnesses and her time card placed her at work the day of May 6 except during a 36-minute lunch break. The prosecution told the jury that during those 36 minutes Brown must have left work, changed into the jogging suit from the white skirt and black blouse witnesses said she wore that day, joined her accomplice, committed the robbery, changed clothes again, and returned to work.
As weak as the prosecution case was, the all-white jury found Brown guilty of aggravated robbery, and she was sentenced to life in prison. A month after the trial, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade wrote the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles saying that Martha Jean Bruce's five-year sentence for attempted murder had been excessive and recommending that it be cut. The board agreed, and Governor Bill Clements ordered Bruce released immediately.
In May 1981, six months after Brown's conviction, Renee Michelle Taylor was arrested when she gave birth to a child in a Dallas hospital. While in post-natal recovery, however, Taylor slipped out of a leg chain attached to her hospital bed and escaped while her guard was in the restroom. Leaving the baby behind, Taylor took the guard's purse, containing a salary check. Later that day, Taylor was captured after she tried to cash the check at a department store.
The following October, under an agreement that would spare her life, Taylor pleaded guilty to the Danziger murder. She refused to identify the second woman involved in the crime, but did testify that neither of the Joyce Ann Browns was that person. Taylor was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Brown's exoneration, however, was another nine years in coming. It occurred in 1990, thanks to an investigation led by James C. McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries. Richard Reyna, a private investigator working with McCloskey, discovered that Martha Jean Bruce had perjured herself when she failed to acknowledge her conviction for making a false statement to a police officer. Moreover, at the trial, the prosecutors illegally and unethically failed to disclose that Bruce was in fact a convicted liar.
Primarily on that basis, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Brown's conviction with an unpublished order in October 1989. She was released on recognizance bond the following November 3, after nine years, twenty-five weeks, and six days behind bars. On February 14, 1990 — Valentine's Day — prosecutors dropped all charges.
After her release, Brown refused to apply for a pardon, asserting that she had done nothing and that, if anything, the state should ask her pardon. Her stand rendered her ineligible for compensation because a pardon is a prerequisite to payment under Texas law.
Joyce Ann Brown's story is featured in the BET series "Vindicated."