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Agent who blamed innocent man still has job

By Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke
jneff@newsobserver.com mlocke@newsobserver.com

The misconduct of State Bureau of Investigation Agent Mark Isley has rung up all sorts of costs: a $7.85 million payout for taxpayers and their insurers; 14 years behind bars for an innocent man with a severe mental disability; and another scar for law enforcement.

Isley, however, still has his job at the SBI, and there’s no indication from Attorney General Roy Cooper that it’s in jeopardy.

Cooper, a four-term Democrat, refused to be interviewed last week about Isley and the Brown case. Isley, head of the bureau’s Medicaid Fraud Section, could not be reached for comment.

Jim Coleman, a Duke University law professor and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, says wrongdoers in law enforcement are rarely held accountable.

“The misconduct in this case is another black eye for the criminal justice system,” Coleman said. “They simply take the loss and move on as if nothing happened. Until there are consequences, nothing will change.”

The recent settlement ended three years of litigation between the SBI and attorneys for Floyd Brown, a 49-year-old man with an IQ around 50. Records from the lawsuit reveal new details about Isley’s attitude toward the case and his handling of it.

In 1993, Isley wrote Brown’s confession by hand, an elaborate six-page document told in the first person, as if Isley was copying Brown’s story word for word. The confession was the only evidence linking Brown to the murder of Katherine Lynch, a retired school teacher in Anson County, about an hour east of Charlotte.

In his deposition, Isley acknowledged that he did nothing to corroborate Brown’s alleged confession, failed to interview key witnesses and didn’t explore obvious suspects.

Isley testified in 2005 that the confession was Brown’s verbatim account.

But in 2007, a Charlotte Observer investigation found more than a dozen instances in the confession of phrasing and words inconsistent with Brown’s level of competence. Later that year, a judge freed Brown from a psychiatric hospital after doctors agreed that he lacked the mental capacity to have offered such a detailed and complex statement.

During Brown’s civil lawsuit, Isley backtracked, saying in his deposition that confession was just a summary.

Isley is firm on one point: He had no idea that Brown was mentally challenged.

Brown sees the world through the eyes of a 7-year-old. He struggles to make sense of the extraordinary detour that pulled him away from his Anson County home to a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital in Raleigh. He was there because he lacked the competency to stand trial.

Brown’s world is black and white. The lawyers that got him out of Dorothea Dix Hospital in 2007 are heroes; the SBI agents and sheriff’s deputies who pinned a murder on him are bad guys.

Now and again, he gets sad when he thinks about the 14 years he languished in Dix. The ache that never heals is the death of his mother, Rose, who got ill and died while Brown was held at Dix. He never got to visit and tell her he loved her before she died.

When the first bit of money arrived a few months ago from his settlement with Anson County, Brown asked his guardian to drive him to the funeral home.

He bought a tombstone for his mother’s grave.

A mysterious crime

On July 9, 1993, Lynch was found beaten to death in her small frame house in Wadesboro. Within days, Isley settled on Floyd Brown as the prime suspect.

A week later, on July 16, Isley and fellow SBI agent Bill Lane interviewed Brown for four hours in the Anson County sheriff’s office. Isley said that Floyd Brown immediately and voluntarily confessed in detail to the killing. Isley said that Brown confessed a second time, and then a third time, telling the same story each time.

Isley said he transcribed the third confession in longhand, a detailed and first-person account. He then read the confession back to Brown, who is illiterate, and Brown signed it.

Every medical or psychological expert who has examined it, including Isley’s own expert witness, has concluded that it was impossible for Brown to have made the confession.

The confession is replete with details and structure that far surpass Brown’s abilities. He could not tell time or left from right. He could not read. He couldn’t tell the difference between a $1 bill and a $20 bill.

The confession is a coherent, chronological story that the state’s own psychiatrist testified was “too educated, too sophisticated, too relevant, too cohesive for Mr. Brown.”

Failing to investigate

Isley was the lead investigator in the murder. He was assisted by Lane, a crime-scene specialist, and two Anson County sheriff’s deputies who were later convicted of racketeering.

In his deposition, Isley acknowledged that an unsubstantiated confession has less weight before a judge or jury than a confession backed with corroborating evidence.

But Isley said he didn’t think it important to talk with the van driver who, according to the confession, drove Brown to his vocational center after the murder, to see if Brown’s clothes were bloodstained or to check whether the suspect was acting differently that morning. He never posed similar questions to Brown’s father or sister, or to the staff of the vocational center in Hamlet, the McLaurin Center.

In the confession, Brown mentioned that he saw Hattie Little, neighbor of Katherine Lynch, as he left the scene. Neither Isley nor any other investigator spoke with her or any other neighbors to see if they saw Brown there that morning.

The suspected murder weapon was a walking stick with a bloody palm print found under Lynch’s body. The SBI lab compared the bloody print to Brown and found that they didn’t match. That was a tentative result; lab protocol required a new set of Brown’s prints to definitively confirm the results.

Isley never obtained the new prints requested by the lab.

One of the more puzzling lapses was the failure to look at alternative suspects. In 1991, two years prior to her murder, Lynch was beaten in an attempted robbery at her home. Two men confessed, saying they were looking to rob a drug dealer who was living in Lynch’s house.

Isley listed the two men as leads and assigned himself and an Anson deputy to interview them, documents show. No one ever did.

Slow to notice

In his 2011 deposition, Isley said he never thought that Brown was mentally handicapped.

That’s a key point; an SBI agent cannot interview someone who can’t understand his rights.

“He didn’t give you any reason to suspect that he was mentally impaired in any way, correct?” Brown’s lawyer asked.

“He didn’t give me any reason to suspect that,” Isley replied.

Isley was insistent through two days of depositions. He didn’t know Brown could not read. He never saw Brown confused by any question.

“I never concluded Floyd was mentally retarded,” he said.

There were clues.

In the 24 hours leading up to the handwritten confession, Brown signed four forms for Isley, who acknowledged that Brown had difficulty signing his name.

Brown never spelled his name the same way twice:

“FLOYD BNW”

“FLOYD BOWN”

“FLOYDOBWN”

“FLOYD BWN”

One form was a release giving police access to Brown’s medical and psychological records from the McLaurin Center. Those records showed that Brown had an IQ of 54, in the mildly to moderately mentally handicappedrange.

On the day of the arrest, Isley came to find Brown at the McLaurin Center. The center provides training and day activities for adults with developmental disabilities.

Looking over his shoulder

Each day, a few dozen adults with limited abilities come to the McLaurin Center in Hamlet to practice counting money, folding cardboard boxes and steam pressing bandages.

On Wednesday, two days after the state and its insurers agreed to compensate him with millions, Brown walked into the McLaurin Center, cradling his lunch bag just as he has for years.

Instructors and office managers met him with hugs and warm wishes for finally reaching a settlement with the state government that had derailed his life. Brown grinned and told them that as soon as he got his money he wanted to treat them all to lunch.

“I’m gonna get you a big lunch,” he told office manager MaryAnn Pervatte. “A buffet.”

“What kind of buffet?” she asked.

“All you can eat,” Brown answered.

Since Brown got the news of his settlement Monday night, each hour he thinks of a new possibility for a life with money to spend.

Brown has never traveled outside the state; he’d like to go on a road trip to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and New York City and Tennessee.

“I want to see how it all looks,” Brown said.

Brown keeps a shopping list in mind. He wants new shirts and slacks and money to treat his foster mother, Bernice Harris, to lunch once in a while. He wants a snazzy suit to wear to the upcoming wedding of the two attorneys – Mike Klinkosum and Kelley DeAngelus – who worked to free him in 2007.

Mostly, though, Brown means to live simply and quietly. He will stay with his foster mother and continue to work some days at the McLaurin Center.

A few things have changed. Though Brown can’t drive, he bought a shiny used BMW with some of his settlement money.

As Brown and Harris left the McLaurin Center on Wednesday, Harris told Brown he could sit in the driver’s seat for a few minutes if he wanted.

Brown looked alarmed: “I don’t want behind that steering wheel.”

Harris smiled and assured Brown he couldn’t get in trouble if the engine wasn’t running. Brown looked left, then right and turned to look over his shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Floyd,” Harris said. “There aren’t any police out here.”

Neff: 919-829-4516
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