Electronic version Eroy Brown book available

For readers who want an electronic version,  Amazon is selling it for $14.95....

Habern’s law firm honored for civil rights work

Bill Habern’s law firm, Habern, O’Neil and Pawgan L.L.P. of Huntsville, was recently honored by the The Houston Lawyers Association and the Houston Lawyers Foundation. The award was the Matthew W. Plummer Sr. Justice Award, named for a former Tuskegee airman who was an investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office when he challenged the segregation of the courthouse cafeteria. Here’s an excerpt from the coverage in the Huntsville Item.

Bill Habern, one of the firm’s founding partners, served as one of the attorneys who successfully defended Texas prison inmate Eroy Brown — recently granted parole — accused of capital murder in the 1981 of slayings of a prison warden and farm manager at the Ellis Unit near Riverside. He also litigated a case known nationally as the “Ultimate Hunt” in which two prison inmates were injured when forced to serve as “dog bait” for Texas prison system chase dogs. That case netted $14,000 in damages to the two inmates.

Habern’s work with the prison and parole system also has been honored by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, which last year gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award.
“If 40 years ago when I got my law license, someone had told me that I’d spend my career representing prison inmates and their families for a living, I’d have told them they were crazy,” Habern told the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “What our law firm does is a very important area of law that is rapidly expanding while at the same time getting more and more complicated. Despite that expansion, Texas is without a meaningful, full-time organization that is active in its pursuit of prisoner’s civil rights. This is not the case in many other states.”
Habern said he is also concerned that there are no — if any —  law schools in Texas that offer a course work directed at representing clients facing the consequences of a felony conviction.
“This area of law deals with a lot more that just parole or a prisoner’s civil rights. It has to do with a whole new world of issues that must be faced by legislatures, the courts, the family, and the offender,” he said. “Law schools today seldom prepare young lawyers to deal with the collateral circumstances of a felony conviction. It is mostly lessons of law that are learned on the job and in the streets.”

Reaction to Eroy Brown’s parole from anonymous TDCJ officials

The reaction from some members of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to Eroy Brown’s parole has been disappointingly racist and juvenile.

Some of the postings are written in black dialect. There is name calling. But the brave writers are anonymous.

None of the writers seems aware that Brown was sent to federal prison because of a civil rights suit filed on his behalf and that of inmates who testified in his trial that their lives were in danger in Texas prisons.

Eroy Brown granted parole after 27 years in federal prisons

Against expectations, Eroy Brown was granted parole after spending the last 27 years in  prison for a Waco  convenience-store robbery that netted twelve dollars and couple of candy bars. Even though Brown  was convicted by a state court he served his time in federal prisons for his own protection. During three sensational trials in the early  1980s, Brown claimed self defense in the drowning of the Ellis prison warden and shooting the farm manager. Texas prison authorities denounced the verdicts as a miscarriage of justice. Brown testified that the warden pulled a gun on him and threatened to shoot him for talking about the theft of farm equipment by his boss.

Brown’s parole attorney, Bill Habern, who also helped defend him at trial, says he expects Brown to be released at the end of the month from a federal prison in North Carolina. He will fly to Los Angeles where he will be stay in a church supported halfway house that helps former inmates who have served a lot of time.

Brown was approved for parole in 2000 but the decision was  reversed.

Stories about the parole have appeared in Grits for Breakfast

and the Austin American Statesman:

“This has been a long time coming,” said Bill Habern, a Huntsville attorney who represented Brown in both the murder and parole cases. “Twenty-seven years for a $12 robbery is a lot of time. … This way, he’ll be under supervision when he gets out.

“The board deserves credit. The right thing to do was to grant this parole, and they did that.”


Si Dunn writes on Eroy Brown

Si Dunn, novelist, screenplay writer and journalist, writes on his book blog:

A prizewinning journalist has dug deeply and impressively into a double killing that still haunts the Texas Department of Criminal Justice more than 30 years after it happened.

In 1981, a prison farm manager and a warden were killed by a black inmate who claimed self-defense. Many predicted the inmate, a convicted burglar and robber named Eroy Brown, would be executed….

The verdicts, writes Berryhill, “marked the end of Jim Crow justice in Texas.” His account of Eroy Brown’s “astonishing” defense is based on trial documents, exhibits, and journalistic accounts and also draws upon Brown’s story told in his own words.

Berryhill, an excellent writer and researcher, chairs Texas Southern University’s journalism program. He previously has won a Texas Institute of Letters prize for nonfiction.


Bryan Stevenson Ted talk on injustice

Bryan Stevenson on injustice

In an engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.


We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.” (Bryan Stevenson)



Austin Chronicle on Eroy Brown’s chances for parole

Michael King has updated his coverage of Eroy Brown’s parole chances.

Huntsville attorney Bill Habern was on Brown’s original defense team and represents him in his parole case. In what he acknowledges is an extraordinary circumstance, Habern has asked that former TDCJ employees (or their immediate relatives) be recused from the three-member panel assigned to decide Brown’s parole – the current panel would include two Huntsville-based former TDCJ employees, including a retired warden. “We are acutely aware that those selected to make up the Brown Panel,” Habern wrote on Jan. 18 to Rissie Owens, chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, “face the potential of extremely negative reactions from their old friends and social contacts who are employees of the Texas prison system, especially if they were to vote in a favorable manner.”

Owens has told told Habern she trusts the former prison officials to vote in a fair and professional manner.

Dallas Morning News notes Eroy Brown’s story

Veteran journalist Si Dunn wrote a short description of The Trials of Eroy Brown for The Dallas Morning News for its Texas and Southwest Books Roundup:

A prizewinning journalist has dug deeply and impressively into a double killing that still haunts the Texas Department of Criminal Justice more than 30 years after it happened. In 1981, a prison farm manager and a warden were killed by a black inmate who claimed self-defense. Many expected that Eroy Brown would be executed. But a year earlier, Texas inmates had won a huge federal civil rights victory against “unrelenting cruelty” in the Texas prison system. In multiple trials after the killings, juries considered the state’s evidence and found Brown not guilty. The verdicts, writes Berryhill, who heads Texas Southern University’s journalism program, “marked the end of Jim Crow justice in Texas.”

Michael King of Austin Chronicle reviews “Trials”

Michael King, political editor of the Austin Chronicle has written a pice about “Trials” that is one of the best summaries to date. Of Eroy Brown’s acquittals, he writes:

Even a generation later, those verdicts seem almost unbelievable. But the killings of Pack and Moore took place in the shadow of Ruiz v. Estelle, the landmark prison lawsuit that had recently ended in sweeping orders for reform from federal Judge William Wayne Justice. Little substantive change had yet taken place – Texas prisons remained essentially state-run slave plantations, directly managed by prison “trusties” using methods of brutal violence. But Berryhill (accomplished journalist and chair of the journalism program at Texas Southern University) argues convincingly that because ofRuiz, prison officials felt themselves under increasing public scrutiny. An angry remark from Brown that fateful Saturday apparently led Moore to believe that Brown (who worked in the prison’s tractor shop) was threatening to expose Moore’s (and other officials’) illicit sales of prison tires and other equipment.

King wraps up the piece this way:

In 2010, Robert Perkinson, author of the prison history Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, told me that Ruiz brought to Texas prisons some professionalism and better conditions, but it was followed by radical expansion of drug laws, incarcerations, and sentencing, strongly biased by race (see “Grim History,” Aug. 20, 2010). Perkinson wrote, “Today, a generation after the triumphs of the civil rights movement, African Amer­i­cans are incarcerated at seven times the rate of the whites, nearly double the disparity measured before desegregation.” Yet white politicians continue to campaign as though racial inequality were an ancient relic. Indeed, the Republican presidential candidates attack the first nonwhite president in flatly racial terms, and treat minority voters – in rhetoric and in policy pronouncements – as though they are de facto criminals who should be presumed guilty until proven innocent.




Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon with comment on Eroy Brown

Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon recently posted about Adam Gopnik’s essay in the New Yorker about mass incarceration. Both writers commented on Robert Perkinson’s sweeping history of Texas prisons, Texas Tough. Perkinson was one of the first readers of the manuscript of The Trials of Eroy Brown. Simon is author of Governing through Crime, a study of how the criminal justice system has become a way of managing the poor.

Here is Simon:

Drawing on excellent recent books on American punitiveness, including William Stuntz,The Collapse of American Criminal Justice; Robert Perkinsons, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, and Michelle Alexanders, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Gopnik suggests American proclivity for incarceration comes from different strains in our culture. One associated with the North, is a confidence in procedures to justice (as well as an optimism about machines to make things better, the penitentiary was a machine). Another associated with the South, is a commitment to forceful racial controls through degrading means (exemplified by Texas’ tradition of plantation prisons described by Perkinson and in Michael Berryhill’s just published, The Trials of Eroy Brown). Gopnik also mentions the rise of private prisons which also puts the profit motive behind building up and maintaining mass incarceration.

Let me give you one detail from Gopnik that those of us who have been studying mass incarceration know, but which ought to be shocking to the average American who believes that freedom is the governing norm for the United States:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.