Paper, Pencil End Ordeal : After 9 Months in Prison, Mother Waits With Family for Hearing
Ava Casey Brown can wake up whenever she likes.
She can hug her children or tell them to swat the flies or swing open her screen door to survey the parched and dusty landscape of Joshua trees and mountains that spread out before her desert bungalow.
Ava Casey Brown is free--at least for the time being.
“I am from Antelope Valley,” her handwritten letter to a state appellate court began. “I’ve lived there for five years. . . . I am a divorced mother with four children. I have been their sole support for all their lives. . . .
Backing of Community
“I’m a devout Christian Sunday School teacher at First Community Church in Littlerock (Calif.). I’m well established in the Sun Village community, volunteering for various activities at Jackie Robinson Community Park. I have no past criminal history. No drug or alcohol use history or child abuse history. . . . Please look into my file and you will see that my community is standing behind me 100%.”
On March 20, 1987, Brown changed from a regular mom into a criminal defendant.
That night, she did something that she now regrets: At speeds of up to 80 m.p.h., she tailed her errant daughter’s car through the streets of Palmdale, ramming it at least twice. The Honda being driven by 16-year-old Renee Casey flipped over, and although the girl was not hurt, a friend riding with her suffered a broken collarbone.
The episode brought Brown a five-year state prison term. When her lawyer asked that she remain free pending appeal, Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen declared Brown a danger to society and set her bail at $100,000.
Jail Left Its Mark
The nine months that Brown spent incarcerated have left an indelible mark on her and on her children. Her experience with the justice system has caused some to charge that Brown, a black woman convicted by an all-white jury, did not get a fair trial--either because of racism or because the judge was biased in favor of the prosecutor. But what is most dramatic about Brown’s story is how she got herself out of prison, pending appeal, with only a pencil and some paper and without the help of her private attorney.
In June, a three-judge panel at the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles read the letter Brown had sent. Just as Brown asked, they looked into her file. The judges found that there was “no evidence whatsoever” to support Coen’s finding that Brown was a danger to the community and they ruled the bail “excessive.” They ordered Brown released immediately on her own recognizance.
Criminal defense lawyers say such a ruling is extraordinary.
“Not only does it not happen every day, but it’s a very rare occurrence when a court of appeal gets involved in a situation involving bail, even at the request of lawyers,” said Tom Nolan, president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which represents 2,000 criminal defense lawyers throughout the state. “It reminds all of us that we should not give up fighting for our clients.”
“The incident,” as Brown now calls it, happened nine days before Renee’s 17th birthday.
Spots Daughter’s Car
It was a school night. Renee had the car--a 1976 Honda that Brown had purchased for her. Brown told her daughter to be home before dark. At 1 a.m., after phoning Renee’s friends in an unsuccessful attempt to find her, Brown went looking. When she returned, she spotted the Honda parked across the street.
Renee--who was later described by a social worker as a “rebellious type"--had been out partying that night. She said she knew she was in trouble for not coming home on time. When she saw her mother crossing the street toward her, she hopped into the Honda and took off, with her friend, Arintha Anderson, in the back seat.
Brown followed in her Ford LTD, a faster, heavier car than the little Honda. Renee sped up. Brown sped up, too. At the trial last October, Anderson, who has filed a civil suit against Brown, described it this way:
“We was running from her mamma. . . . She kept bumping us. She turned her high beams on, and I don’t know. She got close and she was scaring me. . . . She hit us real hard, and each time she hit us, we would fly up, you know, move faster than the car was going. . . .”
The Honda rolled onto its roof. The Ford went into a ditch. Brown scrambled out and flagged down a passing motorist to get help. He took her to the home of a friend, who took her back to the scene, where she was arrested.
She was charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of child endangerment, one count of reckless driving with injury. There was also a special allegation: that she intended to commit great bodily harm.
Brown took a leave from her $1,200-a-month job as a nurse’s aide for the trial in Lancaster. She arrived each day dressed properly, in a skirt and hose and heels. She brought her younger children--Lafayette, Zenee and LaMitch, now 10, 11, and 14--with her twice. She wanted the jury to see them.
The trial lasted a week. Renee testified for the prosecution; the deputy district attorney called her a reluctant witness. Brown took the stand in her own defense. She repeatedly denied that she acted out of anger. She told the jury that she had been worried and upset about Renee and that she never intended to cause any harm.
Argued Brown’s lawyer, Leonard Chaitin: “Maybe Mrs. Brown didn’t use the best judgment in the world, but it’s not so outrageous under the circumstances to constitute criminal conduct.”
The jury took 55 minutes to convict her.
Juror Cites Facts
“There wasn’t an extreme amount of debate,” juror James Drysdale recalled. “Of course, the feeling was that the high speed that was involved in her chasing her daughter, and the fact that there was another girl in the car also, and the fact that the car did wind up being wrecked or turned over. . . . I don’t see how anybody could not have an intention of endangering a person at that kind of speed.”
After the foreman read the verdict--guilty on all five counts, plus a special finding of intentional bodily harm--Brown was led away in handcuffs to Sybil Brand Institute for Women.
Jail made a vivid impression on her. It smelled dirty, a mix of cigarette smoke and the odor of too many bodies packed into too small a place.
“Imagine being in a room with 275 women, and the majority of them have been in prison (before). I’m about the only one that was in there for the first time. I didn’t know there was so many violent women in the world! I didn’t know that. I think there’s more violent women than there is men. . . .”
On Dec. 3, 1987, Brown was transferred from the County Jail to the California Institution for Women at Frontera. What put her there, according to Judge Coen, was the jury’s special finding that she intended to cause great bodily harm.
Coen could have sentenced Brown to as much as eight years and 10 months in prison. Or, he could have followed the recommendation of the probation officer assigned to the case, who said Brown’s offense seemed out of character and “unlikely to repeat itself.” The probation officer suggested that Brown receive a suspended state prison sentence, be placed on probation and ordered to serve one year in County Jail.
But the special finding, Coen said, made Brown ineligible for probation. Although he acknowledged that he could have declared it “an unusual case where the interests of justice would best be served by probation,” he said he felt that “that wasn’t called for.”
The man who prosecuted Brown agreed. Deputy Dist. Atty. Kent Cahill said Brown got the punishment she deserved.
Her case, he said, “was what attorneys sometimes call a slam-dunk.”
Cahill was surprised--and annoyed--to learn that the Court of Appeal had released Brown. Should she win her appeal and earn the right to a new trial, he said, he will urge that she be prosecuted again.
“I know a lot of the religious community backed her and I know she goes to church,” Cahill said. “But people get very angry and do very crazy things, even good religious people do. . . . To me, the evidence was absolutely clear that what she did was deliberate.”
The Rev. Samuel Hooker doesn’t think so.
Hooker is president of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in the predominantly white Antelope Valley. He and Brown’s pastor, the Rev. Harry Currie, circulated petitions on Brown’s behalf in the close-knit, largely black community of Sun Village, where she lives. Hooker said he believes that Brown’s experience is indicative of “gross discrimination in the Antelope Valley.
“Everybody’s white that’s doing anything in the courts,” he complained. “I have been there on several occasions. I didn’t see one black clerk. The only black person I saw there was Rev. Currie, and he’s the maintenance man. So what does that say to you?”
Chaitin, who is white, said he does not see any racial bias in the case or in the racial composition of the jury. “It might be kind of naive,” Chaitin said, “but I think even if you get an all-white jury . . . I think they are able to, in most cases, make a proper decision.”
Charge of Bias
But he does charge bias on the part of Coen in favor of the prosecution, and his appeal is based largely on his argument that the judge denied Brown a fair trial and meted out an unjustly harsh punishment.
With their mother in prison, Brown’s children did their best to stay together as a family.
Brown’s younger sister, Yvette Hart, had been awarded custody of Lafayette, Zenee and LaMitch. Renee went to Colorado to live with her father but returned after several months and moved in with a cousin in Los Angeles.
Only 19 at the time, Hart was little more than a child herself. Although she had been living in Los Angeles, she took an apartment in Palmdale so her niece and nephews could remain in school in the Antelope Valley.
The youngsters showed the strain in various ways. LaMitch lost his temper. Zenee ate excessively. And Lafayette just grew quiet. Sometimes, Hart said, she felt as though the kids were starving for their mother’s affection.
“One thing about them, they always loved hugs. That’s one thing I did give them.”
Momentarily Lost Control
The talk among her friends was that Brown was a good mother who momentarily lost control. Members of the congregation at First Community Church, where Brown taught Sunday school, apparently believed so. Led by Currie, they raised enough money to move the family’s belongings into a storage facility. Each month, the church paid the $45 bill. And the women in Sun Village kept an eye on Brown’s children.
Meanwhile, their mother was learning to become a firefighter.
At the California Institution for Women, Brown was placed in a program in which minimum-security inmates are trained to fight forest fires and then stationed in camps around the state. When she wasn’t hiking or running or lifting weights, Brown mingled with the other inmates, many of whom were no strangers to the system.
“Somehow, I got involved with the lifers. . . . They’re the ones that started talking to me about writing letters.”
Asks for Her Release
She wrote to the judge who replaced Coen after he was transferred to downtown Los Angeles, asking for a modification of her sentence. She wrote to the Juvenile Court, asking about her custody case. She wrote to the state Court of Appeal, asking for release.
By the time she wrote her last letter June 7, Brown had been transferred to the Puerta La Cruz conservation camp at Warner Springs near San Diego.
Life was easier at the camp. The food was plentiful and good--shrimp, steak, chicken--because the firefighters had to stay strong. And Brown managed to get herself excused from firefighting; after buddying up to a guard at the California Institution for Women, she discovered that some prisoners were needed to work at “in-camp jobs.” She got work in the Puerta La Cruz kitchen, first as a cook, and then a baker.
She was baking Dutch apple pies--15 of them--when the reply from the appeals court came.
She heard her name over the loudspeaker: “Ava Brown, report to the office. Ava Brown, report to the office.” When the office staff gave her an envelope with a Los Angeles postmark, she took it back to the kitchen and put it on a shelf.
It remained there, unopened, for another two hours.
Finally Opened Letter
“After I finished my pies, me and the ladies, we were all sitting down drinking our sodas and tasting the pies. And I opened the letter and I started reading and I said ‘Look!’ ”
“And they said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ”
“And I said, ‘Look! LOOK! LOOOOOK!’ And I started screaming and hollering and jumping and crying.
“And they said, ‘You’re gonna go home.’
“And I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” she repeated softly. “ ‘I’m gonna go home.’ ”
Children are fluttering about the small yellow stucco house where Ava Casey Brown now lives. Zenee is getting dressed, LaMitch is covering his scraped knee with a Band-Aid and Lafayette is nosing through the refrigerator. In the living room, a wildlife special about raccoons is playing on the television set.
Hart, Brown’s sister, is here, too; she is still the children’s court-appointed guardian and so must live with them. Only Renee is absent. At 18, she lives with Brown’s two other sisters in Los Angeles, where she is studying cosmetology.
Brown says she is not nervous about her appeal, or about the prospect of returning to prison if she loses. For now, she is concentrating on finding another job--it is difficult, she said, when you have to list a conviction on your application--and trying to win back custody of her children.
Renee, too, is concentrating on the future. She dreams about getting her beautician’s license and someday opening a shop.
Both Share the Fault
Although she feels guilty about what happened, Renee says she believes that she and her mother share the blame. “It wasn’t all her fault,” she says, “but then it wasn’t all my fault either.”
Mother and daughter see one another fairly often. Not long ago, the family took an outing to Exposition Park in Los Angeles to attend a concert featuring Melba Moore and other black women. For the occasion, Renee fixed her mother’s hair in a French braid.
Yet both agree that all is far from normal. Brown said she and her oldest child have still not discussed “the incident.”
“It changed our relationship a whole lot. I’m mom and she’s daughter, but we don’t have that closeness that we used to have. We were all one family and now we’re divided.”