Judge Joe Brown: A Legacy of Justice

Former Prosecutor and Criminal Court Judge Jailed for questioning a magistrate
Former Prosecutor and Criminal Court Judge Jailed for questioning a magistrate

Memphis, Tn Aug. 28, 2015–Judge Joe Brown is  Shelby County’s first black prosecutor and a former criminal court judge. He has presided over one of the most important cases of our lifetime. He is not just TMZ fodder, but a  man who, with his career,  helped instill integrity and faith in the Shelby County justice system and who is now being attacked, humiliated and discredited for  the crime of challenging a less accomplished colleague on the letter of the law.

Memphis Has a Race Problem

Brown’s perceived “big city bravado” in a town that only appreciates gracious docility from people of color, has won him media scrutiny and disdain. His belief in standing on the principles of “manhood, responsibility, and justice” has garnered both respect and outrage.

Memphis, Tennessee is a mid-sized city with southern, small town views and old south rules of play. Politicians are purchased, race issues aren’t discussed and the elite control the city, raiding resources with a blatant disregard for it’s inhabitants.

juvenile court

The Shelby County Juvenile Courts are no exception. Using funds siphoned from  intended child support payments, SCJC invests in to stocks. Stockholders then use the proceeds to fund Republican-led campaigns and activities. The money is taken from a largely Democratic, black population to fund the white minority’s activities–a near perfect example of business as usual in this gritty, southern town. juveniles

These problems are at the root of Judge Joe Brown’s contentious relationship  with the Shelby Juvenile Courts. Brown  filed several Habeas Corpus petitions to bring reforms to the Courts in the 80’s, to weigh the scales of justice back in favor of the citizens. But, when he visited the courts in 2014, he found many of the reforms established through his petitions had been erased and the courts were ripe with illegal and negligent operations that once again eroded faith in the court system and threatened justice for thousands of juvenile and adult citizens.

Brown talks about some of the problems he witnessed in this interview.

PRESIDING OVER AN HISTORIC CASE

Judge Joe Brown gained national attention in the 90’s when he presided over the final appeal of James Earl Ray, the man long convicted in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Brown demonstrated fairness in the emotional charged proceedings. He found the evidence showed Ray was not the shooter but a convenient scapegoat in a conspiracy that including government and city officials.

Giving Context to Controversy

James Earl Ray poses for photo
James Earl Ray poses for photo

During this appeal, it became well established that Judge Joe Brown was not someone who would follow the status quo.The MLK assassination was still a very sensitive topic in Memphis ( and is to this day) and Brown’s discussion of the facts  was viewed as brazen and irresponsible. He was met with backlash from the media and some Memphis citizens who preferred to leave the matter in the past. Brown discusses the case in this interview with NPR.

Brown took to the media with stunning revelations that Ray’s weapon was not the gun used to kill King. The evidence instead pointed to a two man team. Brown also revealed that King was also shot from the Fire House tower, not the room across from the Lorraine Motel. He said the evidence presented proved Memphis police and fire officials were involved in the conspiracy. It was then that Brown became viewed as dangerous. He received death threats and endured harassment and physical threats. But as a man’s man, he continued to speak out. Only then did he gaine the attention of the producers of the Judge Judy Show who asked him to try television.

Decisive on the bench

Joe Brown Is Owed a Public Apology

When Brown challenged the magistrate, the proper behavior for the magistrate would  have been to check the law. If he had, he would have found that Joe Brown was right. It was proper for him to request a magistrate to state his authority and the basis of his ruling.  He was right when he stated the court’s authority was limited to $10 fines for contempt.  But the magistrate’s pride would not allow him to consider the law and at the urging of a politically motivated bailiff, he reacted emotionally (and outside of the law), sentencing Brown to 5 days for contempt. The irony of a black man, a former judge in good standing, fair enough to  hear the appeal of our hero’s accused killer without bias, being refused the right have his appeal heard in the same state he served for 40 years with a near spotless record– is a shameful reflection of how little we have progressed.

Joe Brown in high spirits as he reports to the Shelby County Jail
Joe Brown in high spirits as he reports to the Shelby County Jail

Brown is not just a television personality, but a man who has built his 40-plus year career on the law. The circumstances under which a man of this caliber is questioned by a magistrate on the letter of the law, ring of ego and racism. What happened to Joe Brown in Memphis is equivalent to political imprisonment and the most egregious display of injustice. Tennessee’s Courts will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Judge Joe Brown will be remembered as a hero.

Judging History, A Look at Brown’s Historic Case

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