A black man named Joseph Green Brown was accused of raping and killing a white woman in 1973 in a Tampa, Fla., clothing store called the Just Kids Shoppe. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Fitted for a burial suit. Granted a stay some 15 hours before his scheduled electrocution in 1983. He was set free in 1987.
In the years since then, Brown, now 62, worked as a truck driver, a homeless shelter cook, a convenience store clerk. He got married. He moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte. He talked to church groups about staying out of trouble.
Now he stands accused of first-degree murder in the death of his 71-year-old wife, Mamie Caldwell Brown. He was arrested nearly two weeks ago after police found her dead in the couples apartment near W.T. Harris Boulevard.
Police havent disclosed a motive in the death, or provided details on how she was killed. But documents uncovered in the wake of the crime give clues that Browns private life may have been unraveling from financial and domestic troubles for years prior to his wifes death.
Over the next few months, prosecutors will decide whether to seek the death penalty.
Its legal terrain Brown knows all too well.
In July 1973, Earlene Treva Barksdale was found in her Tampa shop dead on the floor, naked with a bullet hole in her head.
Later the same afternoon, Brown, who was 23 at the time and had no criminal record, flagged down a Tampa police car. He wanted to confess to a robbery. He told officers he and another man broke into a Holiday Inn by the airport and robbed a woman and that he had started to molest her before stopping. The other mans name, he said, was Ronald Floyd.
A detective thought there might be a link between the two crimes. He asked Brown and Floyd if they knew anything about the Barksdale murder. Brown said no. Floyd, eventually, said yes that he only drove, that Brown fired the shot.
The murder trial was the biggest thing going on, attorney J. Michael Shea said this week. He was Browns court-appointed attorney. All the news. All the television stations.
The prosecutor, Robert Bonanno, had Floyds testimony, but that was about it. No fingerprints. No matching blood. The bullet that killed Barksdale couldnt have come from the gun Brown had used in the hotel robbery, but Bonanno told the jury it was the murder weapon.
Shea asked Floyd at the trial if he was getting a deal from prosecutors for his testimony against Brown. Floyd said no.
The all-white jury quickly found Brown guilty. Brown got 20 years for the robbery on top of his death sentence. Floyd got probation.
Shea still thinks Brown was innocent.
As far as Im concerned, he was always guilty, said Bonanno, who became a judge and was the subject of a series of ethics investigations before resigning in 2001 to stop another.
Floyd got in trouble shortly after the trial and went to prison. He told Shea in 1975 in a sworn statement that his testimony was false and that he had lied in exchange for favorable consideration from the prosecution.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund took over Browns appeal in 1981. Florida Gov. Bob Graham rejected Browns plea for clemency and signed his death warrant in 1983.
Brown kicked and screamed when they came to measure him for that suit. He was asked what he wanted for his last meal. He said he wanted nothing.
The stay came the night before he was to be killed.
The federal appeals court overturned his conviction because Bonanno had knowingly used false testimony a reference to Floyds lie about his deal with prosecutors.
Prosecutors determined there was insufficient evidence to retry Brown. Brown was mopping the floor at the county jail when he got a call saying he was free. He was released with the 75 cents from his personal prison account.
I cant tell you he was wrongly imprisoned, said Henry Lavandera, the prosecutor who dropped the case. All I can tell you is that I couldnt prove that he was guilty.
In 1999, Brown, who started going by Shabaka WaQlimi, Swahili for uncompromising, told a reporter he was still bitter.
Youve got to realize, you put a man in a cage and treat him like a dog, talk to him like a dog, feed him like a dog theres gonna come a time he wants to bite like a dog.
Ten years after that, in a talk with a group of students, one of them asked if he was healed.
Im healed enough to control those emotions, but I still possess those emotions, he said. When I talk to audiences I ask them to pray for me. And the reason why I ask them to pray for me is that I know that one day all these emotions is gonna swell up. And I ask people to pray for Shabaka that when that day come I be by myself.
Joyce Robbins wanted to know why her aunt wasnt coming to a big family barbecue.
Mamie Brown and her husband, Joseph Green Brown, had been fixtures at family functions since theyd moved to Charlotte in 2007.
But lately, the Browns werent showing up at birthdays, anniversaries or other gatherings. So Robbins called her, and Mamie Brown confided that the couple were facing serious financial problems. Since his release from a Florida prison, Joseph had been making a living talking against the death penalty. But he hadnt been paying taxes on his speaking fees.
She said, Money is just tight right now. We just dont go too many places anymore, Robbins told The Associated Press.
She was so protective of him, said Mamie Browns cousin, Sherry Williams.
Met after prison
Brown had met his wife after his release from prison in Florida in 1987. She had three children from a previous marriage and was working for the U.S. Labor Department in Washington.
Shed been born and raised in a big family in Rock Hill. The two were married in 1988 and she introduced her new husband to the family for the first time the following year, when she went home to care for her sick mother.
She didnt talk about his past, but he seemed like a nice person, Williams said.
While they were in Rock Hill, Joseph Brown took a job driving an ice cream truck. Records show that in 1989 and 1990, he was charged with forgery, burglary and pointing a weapon. The charges were later dropped.
After Mamie Brown returned to her Labor Department job in Washington, the couple later moved to Fort Washington, Md.
On June 19, 2003, she filed a domestic-violence complaint against her husband and was granted a temporary restraining order. A week later, the complaint was dropped.
A month later, Brown tried to file a domestic-violence complaint against her, but it was denied. On April 22, 2005, she again filed a complaint, and the court issued a temporary restraining order. A few weeks later, however, the order was dismissed.
Return to Charlotte
Documents also show they were having financial problems. In 2008, their home in Maryland was foreclosed on and sold at a sheriffs sale.
Family members said Mamie told them she moved to Charlotte to be closer to her family, and because it was less expensive.
She was happy to be back, Williams said.
So were Mamies family members, who said it was at this point that Joseph began talking openly about his past.
He told us to stay out of trouble, said Marcus Williams, Mamie Browns partially blind nephew.
After hearing Josephs story, Sherry Williams said she pressed him to talk at her church. They paid him $250 and, on Feb. 20, 2011, he appeared before the congregation.
Dressed in a gray suit, he gave one of the speeches he had given hundreds of times, telling them he spent 13 years in a small cage.
One thing about that little cage is it taught you that no matter how big you thought you were or no matter how bad you thought you were, it would break you down, he said.
No return calls
Sherry Williams said there were other hints of trouble. Earlier this year, she asked if they wanted to go on a cruise with other family members. Mamie didnt answer, but Joseph called back to say they couldnt because he had a speaking engagement in Nevada.
I thought about it. Why did he call me and not her? she said.
Then Mamie Brown didnt return phone calls about the barbecue.
Finally, Robbins called and asked her why she wasnt coming. She was quiet for a moment, then shared that her husband owed at least $7,000 in back taxes.
She told Robbins they wouldnt be attending the barbecue before somehow the conversation turned to the subject of death.
Robbins said Mamie told her that when it is time to die, you want to be right with the Lord, adding that she was ready.
Maybe it was something that was on her mind and she was just trying to get it out, Robbins said. Its going to bother me for a long time.
Observer staff writer Cleve Wootson Jr., The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8751.