March 26, 2007 — -- It's official: Tyrone Brown, the man sentenced to life in prison for violating probation with a single marijuana cigarette, is a free man. Brown was released from prison on March 16th.
ABC News' "20/20" documented this story in November 2006. Brown is African-American, poor and without connections. His harsh sentence was contrasted with the mercy shown to a white criminal who murdered someone, then repeatedly violated his parole with cocaine.
The privileged criminal, who was the son of a Baptist minister and the brother-in-law of a U.S. congressman, was never sent to jail, and now even his probation has been lifted.
Brown was involved in an armed robbery that yielded $2. He, too, was first sentenced to probation, but when he violated it just once with a marijuana joint, he was sentenced to life. He has served 17 years. Both men were sentenced by the same judge, Keith Dean.
After the "20/20" report, Dallas voters ousted Dean from the bench, and last week Brown was granted a "conditional pardon" by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The pardon requires Brown to live with his mother, report to a parole officer, find a job and work with a therapist. The governor's press secretary said those conditions are to help Brown reintegrate into society.
"I still feel like I'm 17,'' Brown told ABC News. After a moving reunion celebration outside the prison, the Brown family gathered in a circle and -- beaming -- put their hands together, shouting, "New life!"
Brown thanked Dallas Morning News reporter Brooks Egerton and ABC News' Jim Avila for spotlighting the inequity of his dilemma.
"You guys really got it going,'' he told ABC News.
Brown was imprisoned in 1990, the year South Africa freed Nelson Mandela and Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, sparking the first Gulf War.
He said he knows he's got a lot of adjustments to make. He grinned as he viewed photos of relatives on his family's cell phones. "When I went in, a phone looked like a big block of cheese,'' he said.
At turns jubilant, tearful and proud, four generations of the Brown family poured forth from a church bus they'd taken from Dallas to Huntsville to greet the pardoned man -- who spent half his natural life in prison.
When he returned to his home, Brown said he asked himself, "Is this real?
"I mean it's a blessing just to be here," he said. "I still can't believe it."
It's a new world for Brown, freed from unequal justice, and he says he is determined to look forward, not back, without hard feelings, even for the judge who sentenced him to life for smoking a joint.
"Holding on to that anger…it ain't going to solve nothing," he said.
"I'll remember this day for the rest of my life."
Here is more on "20/20's" original report, which aired on November 3, 2006:
Do you believe the scales of justice tilt in favor of the rich and powerful? To explore this question, "20/20" went to Texas to examine the fate of two men who came before the same judge.
Alex Wood was accused of killing a male prostitute in Dallas in 1995. He pleaded not guilty and went to trial. According to prosecutor Rick Jordan, the evidence against Wood was incontrovertible: He had shot an unarmed man in the back.
But just as the jury was about to conclude its deliberations, Jordan struck a plea bargain: In exchange for a guilty plea, Wood would be given 10 years of probation and no jail time. Jordan's explanation for striking such a lenient deal? He believed the jury was sympathetic to Wood, and Jordan worried it might acquit Wood altogether.
Maybe it would have. Wood had no criminal history and came from a wealthy and well-connected Texas family. Wood's father, the Rev. John Alvin Wood, is a retired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waco and a former regent of Baylor University. He's also a big game hunter and fossil collector whose private museum was recently featured in National Geographic.
Wood's sister is married to eight-term congressman Chet Edwards, whose vast district, the 17th congressional district of Texas, extends from the Fort Worth suburbs in the north to the Bryan-College Station area in the south.
Wood himself dabbled in the genteel business of breeding and showing dogs, specifically Pharaoh Hounds -- an exotic breed whose lineage can be traced back to ancient Egypt.
At trial, Wood was represented by top defense attorneys who described the victim as violent and aggressive, and argued that Wood shot the man in self-defense. Even more important, given the location of the trial -- the Bible Belt South -- they brought in several prominent members of the Baptist church as character witnesses.
Among them was O.S. Hawkins, the exceedingly urbane pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and a true celebrity among Baptist officials. Said Jordan of some of the women jury members, "When O.S. Hawkins came in, it was like they wanted to crawl over the rail and just kiss the ring."
Another reason Jordan agreed to the plea was that he expected Wood to violate probation and end up in jail anyway.
Wood did, indeed, violate probation. First, he tested positive for cocaine use, and shortly after that he and another man were arrested when they were found with crack cocaine in one of Chet Edwards' cars. Citing the failed drug test and the arrest, prosecutors went to Judge Keith Dean, the original trial judge, and asked him to revoke Wood's probation.
Dean, who serves at the 265th criminal district court of Dallas County, and who has been elected to the bench four times, is described as a good, committed judge. But he allowed Wood to remain out on bail for several months, during which time Wood failed two more drug tests.
In the end, Dean let Wood enter a private inpatient treatment center rather than go to jail. In another lucky break, prosecutors decided not to pursue the crack charges against Wood.
But Wood continued to get into trouble -- and continued to escape the consequences. In a dispute over a puppy, dog trainer Margaret Worth said Wood broke into her home. After Wood's father intervened, Worth agreed not to press charges.
Two Court Cases, Same Judge, Varied Treatment
Last year one of Wood's high-powered lawyers asked Dean to shave a year off Wood's sentence and grant him early release from probation. Dean refused but instead agreed to a "postcard" probation in which Wood could simply write to the court once a year. Wood, now 46 years old, has remained free.
The same can't be said for Tyrone Brown, another man who came before Dean.
Back in 1990, when Brown was 17, he and a friend pulled a gun on a Dallas man and demanded his wallet. After taking $2, they handed the wallet back and fled but were quickly caught.
When Brown appeared before Dean, he didn't have a high-powered lawyer. Brown was one of five children who grew up in a poor home and never finished high school. The Baptist church he attended was the little Telstar Baptist Church in Dallas, which cannot claim a single prominent member.
Brown, who had a few minor juvenile offenses on his record, pleaded guilty, and he, too, was sentenced to 10 years' probation.
Like Wood, he also violated probation, although only once, and he only got caught smoking marijuana. But when Brown was called before Dean, what happened to him was markedly different from what happened to Wood. Dean sentenced Brown to life in prison, then added, "Good luck, Mr. Brown." Brown's court-appointed attorney, Matt Fry, didn't protest.
Nora Brown, Tyrone's mother, recalled that she broke down when her son called her with the news. "'Mama,' he said, 'they gave me life.' I just started crying, you know, and I started screaming. And I said 'Baby, how can they give you life. For what?'"
"20/20" correspondent Jim Avila spoke to Dean, who was running for re-election at the time, during a campaign event in Dallas. Avila asked the judge about why he ruled so differently in the two cases. Dean insisted the law and the "ethical code of judicial conduct says I can't talk about any case at any point."
However, Seanna Willing, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, said there is nothing to prevent a judge from talking about cases that are no longer pending.
Wood has finished his probation and is a free man. And now Brown is too.