CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Joyce Robbins wanted to know why her aunt wasn't coming to a big family barbeque.
Mamie Brown and her husband, Joseph Green Brown, who was on Florida's death row for 13 years before his convictions on rape and murder were overturned in 1986, had been fixtures at family functions since they'd moved to Charlotte in 2007.
But lately, the Browns weren't showing up at birthdays, anniversaries or other gatherings. So Robbins called her, and Mamie confided that the couple was facing serious financial problems. Since his release from a Florida prison, Joseph had been making a living talking against the death penalty, based on his personal experience of coming within hours of being executed for a crime he didn't commit. But he hadn't been paying taxes on his speaking fees.
"She said, 'Money is just tight right now. We just don't go too many places anymore,'" Robbins said.
A week later, Mamie Brown, 71, was found dead in her Charlotte apartment and her husband was charged with first-degree murder. Joseph Brown, 62, has been held in the Mecklenburg County jail since his arrest Sept. 14 in a Charleston, S.C., motel room, a day after the slaying. A bond hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.
Police haven't disclosed a motive in death, or provided details on how Mamie was killed. The prosecutor's office says it will present the case soon to a grand jury.
Documents uncovered in the wake of the crime give clues that Brown's private life may have been unraveling for years prior to his wife's death. Yet family members said they didn't know the couple was having financial problems, or that Mamie had filed domestic violence complaints against him in 2003 and 2005 when they lived in suburban Washington, D.C.
"She was so protective of him," said Mamie's cousin Sherry Williams. "She loved him so much. I wish she would have told us what she was going through. We would have helped her."
Joseph Brown was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1973 rape and murder of Earlene Treva Barksdale, the owner of a clothing store in Hillsborough County, Fla. He was scheduled for execution Oct. 17, 1983, but a federal judge ordered a stay 15 hours before he was to be put to death. His conviction was reversed in 1986 because of false testimony from a co-defendant, and the prosecution decided against retrying Brown. He was let out of prison on March 5, 1987.
After his release, Brown met Mamie, who had three children from a previous marriage and was working for the U.S. Labor Department in Washington.
Mamie was born and raised in a big family in Rock Hill, S.C., about 20 miles south of Charlotte. The two were married in 1988 and Mamie introduced her new husband to the family for the first time the following year, when she went home to care for her sick mother.
"She didn't talk about his past, but he seemed like a nice person," Williams said.
While they were in Rock Hill, Joseph took a job driving an ice cream truck. Records show he had several scrapes with the law. In 1989 and 1990, he was charged with forgery, burglary and pointing a weapon. The charges were later dropped.
After Mamie Brown returned to her Labor Department job in Washington, the couple later moved to Fort Washington, Md., in Prince George's County.
Records there point to a rocky marriage. On June 19, 2003, she filed a domestic-violence complaint against her husband and was granted a temporary restraining order. A week later, the complaint was dropped.
A month later, Brown tried to file a domestic-violence complaint against her, but it was denied. On April 22, 2005, she again filed a complaint, and the court issued a temporary restraining order. A few weeks later, however, the order was dismissed.
Clerks at Prince George's County District Court said details about those cases weren't readily available.
Documents also show the two were having financial problems. In 2008, their home in Maryland was foreclosed and sold at a sheriff's sale.
Family members said Mamie told them she moved to Charlotte to be closer to her family, and that it was less expensive to live there than in the Washington area.
"She was happy to be back," Williams said.
So were Mamie's family members, who said it was at this point that Joseph began talking openly about his past.
"He told us to stay out of trouble," said Marcus Williams, Mamie Brown's partially blind nephew, who added that Joseph Brown would often help take care of him by taking him to the store and hanging out with him.
After hearing Joseph's story, Sherry Williams said she pressed him to talk at her church. They paid him $250 and, on Feb. 20, 2011, he appeared before the congregation.
Dressed in a gray suit, he gave one of the typical speeches he had given hundreds of times, telling them he spent 13 years in a "small cage."
"One thing about that little cage is it taught you that no matter how big you thought you were or no matter how bad you thought you were, it would break you down," he said.
He warned that there were times when he would become angry.
"People ask me ... 'Do you have anger? Do you have hatred, frustration, bitterness because of what happened to you?'" he told the congregation. "And I respond, 'Yes.'"
Then he asked them to pray for him to stay calm because he was afraid of what would happen if he exploded.
Looking back, Sherry Williams said there were other hints of trouble. Earlier this year, she asked if they wanted to go on a cruise with other family members. Mamie didn't answer, but Brown called back to say they couldn't because he had a speaking engagement in Nevada.
"I thought about it. Why did he call me and not her?" she said.
Then Mamie Brown didn't return phone calls about the barbeque.
Finally, Robbins called and asked her why she wasn't coming. She was quiet for a moment, then shared that her husband owed at least $7,000 in back taxes.
She told Robbins that she and her husband wouldn't be attending the barbeque before somehow the conversation turned to the subject of death.
Robbins said Mamie told her that when it is time to die, "you want to be right with the Lord," adding that she was ready.
"Maybe it was something that was on her mind and she was just trying to get it out," Robbins said. "It's going to bother me for a long time."
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