Grace and Justice: A Law Student Mentee’s Reflection
Alfred Dewayne Brown with the author, Angelica Lao, in November 2017.
By: Angelica Lao
My favorite book growing up was The Count of Monte Cristo, a story about the young, innocent, illiterate sailor Edmond Dantès of low birth who was framed for treason by his jealous rivals and a politician and doomed to lifelong imprisonment in France’s infamous Château d’If. It is often remembered as a story of revenge. But it is a powerful reminder of how fragile the civil justice system can be—how easily it can be manipulated against those who are not privileged.
With special thanks to the Diversity Conference of the Virginia State Bar, I met Alfred Dewayne Brown in November 2017, the 154th person to be exonerated from death row. The chance to meet him is one of the greatest moments of my life. But Dewayne had changed me long before I met him.
In June 2017, I had the honor to attend the 2017 Virginia State Bar Annual Meeting as a law student mentee participant in the Diversity Conference Mentor/Mentee Initiative. By the end of the Alexandria, Virginia attorney Brian Stolarz’s retelling of his legal battle with Texas’s criminal justice system to free Dewayne in the Annual Meeting CLE program “Grace and Justice on Death Row,” I was almost in tears.
Brian Stolarz and Dewayne Brown often speak at events together and tell their story behind Mr. Stolarz’s book “Grace and Justice on Death Row”, the subject of that impactful 2017 Annual Meeting CLE program, co-sponsored by the Diversity Conference. In November 2017, Mr. Stolarz invited the Diversity Conference law student mentees along with their mentors to a Washington, D.C. restorative justice event at which he and Dewayne were speaking, and that is where I had the unforgettable honor of meeting Alfred Dewayne Browne.
The facts were simple and coldly stacked against Dewayne, a young, illiterate African-American man who grew up poor in Houston, Texas. In 2003, a few of his acquaintances murdered a white police officer and an African-American woman. At the time, Dewayne was at his girlfriend’s house. The true murderers gave alibis that the police accepted as long as they could provide a scapegoat to blame for the murder of a white man. They picked Dewayne.
Before Mr. Stolarz represented Dewayne pro bono, Texas had already failed this innocent man and those he loves. The state’s psychologist bumped up Dewayne’s IQ score to claim Dewayne was eligible for the death penalty. His girlfriend was imprisoned for several months and her children were placed in foster care to coerce damning and completely false testimony from her to convict Dewayne.
After many years of Mr. Stolarz fighting for Dewayne, the landline phone record confirming Dewayne was at his girlfriend’s home finally surfaced from a cardboard box of old case files in a Texas homicide detective’s garage during his spring cleaning. The exonerating call record was even circled, with “Dobey” (Dewayne’s nickname) written next to it. Texas knew all along that Dewayne was innocent, but still committed him to death row. After twelve long years of imprisonment—ten of which was on Texas’s death row—Dewayne finally walked as a free man.
Fourteen years in Château d’If hardened the once optimistic Edmond, but what is most striking about Dewayne’s story is the gracefulness with which he lived his days in prison, as well as his ability to forgive those who wronged him. He truly has no hate in his heart. Dewayne’s ability to still be delighted at twenty-dollars’ worth of vending machine food while knowing he was going to be executed at any point for a crime he didn’t commit is something I will forever be learning.
When we met, I asked Dewayne about his daughter, who was just 2 years old in 2003.
“Oh, she’s doing great,” he said. “She’s in her last year, thinking where she wants to go for college.”
“A senior, already?! You must be so proud!” I said, laughing.
“Yes. We are.”
He spoke about his daughter in the same humble manner as he had all night, but I can tell he was glowing. I felt a wave of anger thinking about how all this joy was almost senselessly taken from this gentle man. But then I realized: what matters to Dewayne is not the decade he lost with his daughter, but rather the decades ahead he can spend with her and his family.
“Where else would you like to go?” I asked. Dewayne had said he likes to go on long drives because he truly feels free on the road with no walls.
“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve driven all over.” He paused. “But I think somewhere like Hawaii would be pretty cool.”
“You should totally go! I’m from Hawaii!”
We exchanged emails and followed each other on Instagram, which was pretty cool.
I wish I could give Dewayne more than just travel tips to my home state for the difference he has made in so many lives, including mine. I am truly grateful to Dewayne, Mr. Stolarz, and the Virginia State Bar for showing me the law as a healing profession. One day, I hope to do the same for others.
Angelica (Wai Sam) Lao. Ms. Lao is currently a second year law student at Antonin Scalia Law School (at George Mason University) in Arlington, Virginia. Her law school’s dean selected her to attend the Diversity Conference’s third annual Mentor/Mentee Initiative at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Virginia State Bar.