Deep in the cobblestone heart of Charleston, South Carolina, past the T-shirt tourist quarter, down among the courtly antebellum mansions that stand in memory of a more mannered time, lived a quintessential Southern belle, a Charleston jewel.
Jackie Olsen, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's sister: It wasn’t just a physical beauty. I mean she was inwardly beautiful. Jane Whelchel, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's daughter: I would say the epitome of a Southern belle. Somebody who I never heard use a word of profanity in her entire life.
Charleston was Mary Lynn Withersppon's world. The old South was carefully preserved along exclusive Tradd Street, whose ancient shutters and lace curtains, designed to deflect the Southern sun, now serve also as a shield against the prying eyes of tourists as they wonder in this far.
But there was, as you will see, one strange presence here.
Whelchel: He had the look of a wild animal.
How strange, how dark, you are surely going to find it hard to believe—though Mary Lynn herself had begun to imagine something dreadful...
Olsen: She was fearful. You could hear it in her voice.
What was his shocking obsession?
What was in the twisted mind of that strange presence? After all, gushed an old friend, half the town seemed in love with Mary Lynn Witherspoon.
Stanley Feldman, family friend: If somebody asked you to list all the good qualities you could think of — brains, beauty, nature, fairness. I would bet they would all apply to Mary Lynn Witherspoon.
The stars must have aligned just right to create Mary Lynn Witherspoon.
And while one shouldn’t reveal a lady’s age, suffice to say she was born near mid-century, one of four South Carolina sisters.
Jackie, just a little younger, was particularly close.
Olsen: She was always so good and kind to me. When she would have boyfriends in high school, you know they would take me places with ‘em. We were not only sisters, we were best friends.
Jackie watched her sister win beauty pageants, score straight As on report cards, graduate as high school valedictorian, become a popular French teacher, marry a doctor... and with him produce a daughter, Jane.
And still, says Jackie, there was no jealousy; her sister was so loveable.
But of course, nothing in this world is perfect. In Mary Lynn’s case, it was her marriage.
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Was it a painful breakup?Olsen: There were many unpleasantries involved in the break-up.
After the divorce, Mary Lynn renewed her passion for this genteel Southern town.
Whelchel: My mom just loved Charleston… loved walking the streets and loved the French Huguenot Church where she attended every Sunday.
Mary Lynn, of course, did not lack for suitors.
Feldman: Had to beat them off with a stick, I would say. I think they all wanted to marry her.
One in particular: Edmonds Brown III, a member of one of Charleston’s oldest families, a father of two, whose wife had up and left one day.
When he started dating Mary Lynn it was 1981. Edmonds’ son Tennant was 10, his sister Molly not quite two years younger.
Edmonds himself was smitten.
Olsen: He was so good to her, it was incredible. And he gave Mary Lynn a lot of support as a single parent in helping her to raise Jane.
Sometimes it seemed to others, like Mary Lynn’s daughter Jane, as if Edmonds cared as much or more about her as he did his own children.
Whelchel: Edmonds was a wonderful man to me. He would come over in the morning and my mom would scoot out of the door. And he would come in and fix my breakfast and take me to school.
And he proposed—again and again. For eight years. And each time, Mary Lynn said “no.” Not that she didn’t care deeply for Edmonds, it was something else: It was his children.
Olsen: Edmonds’ daughter was so jealous of Jane and they just did not get along.
And while Brown’s young son Tennent attended the finest schools, and swam at the country club, there was just something odd about the boy. He never quite fit.
Olsen: He wanted to be sweet. He wanted to be kind. He wanted people to love him.Morrison: And he was kind of an ‘Ugly Duckling.’Olsen: Yes.Whelchel: Just kind of a social misfit. Even from a very young age.
Still, he was lonely, too. And he seemed to love Mary Lynn. And if she did not love him in return, she at least tried to befriend the troubled boy.
Olsen: You know honestly, she was probably the only person that was ever kind to him. Now she didn’t encourage him along the way, but she was kind. She would speak to him.
But she was a teacher, and knew something was off. And thus, whenever Edmonds proposed, the answer remained no.
Olsen: I think, deep in her heart she realized it was not a situation that was going to be the best for her and Jane.
It was 1988 when Mary Lynn broke off her relationship with Edmonds Brown.
Who knew that when it came to young Tennent, the break would not be so easy?
Olsen: He would pop up like on her porch, or ride his bicycle by her house, or appear near her driveway. She would speak to ‘em. Morrison: How would she talk to him?Whelchel: Never mean. But standoffish. You know she would have never invited him into the house.
Still, there he would be. Suddenly standing there. Watching.
Even when Mary Lynn temporarily moved away from Charleston, Tennant seemed to know.
Whelchel: When my mother and I moved to Mt. Pleasant, Tennet just popped up there at that house. And I have no idea how he knew that we had moved, and where we lived.Morrison: You probably would have called the cops or something.Whelchel: Well maybe, it was almost as if, what would you call the cops for? I mean he’s in the backyard. He’s lingering around. But there’s no real crime being committed.
It was more like a weird feeling of discomfort. Tennant was in his late teens by then, yet she still saw in him the sometimes pathetic little boy.
Of course, it was not the first time Mary Lynn had come across a youngster captivated by her good looks and charm.
Whelchel: Anywhere she went if she was driving in a car or just simply walking down the street. Even some of her students just thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world and wrote love letters and things like that, so Morrison: Crushes on her?Whelchel: ...she had admirers of all ages.
Then in 1989, a year after she broke it off with Edmonds, a strange thing happened. Mary Lynn was visiting her mother a few hours from Charleston when they came back to the house after a walk.
Olsen: They went in, and of course, they could realize someone had broken in.
It was odd, though. Nothing appeared to have been taken.
Olsen: Mary Lynn’s suitcase was zipped back up and she didn’t open it till she got home, back in Charleston. And she immediately called my mother and she said, “Mom, she said, “somebody stole my clothes and my make-up.”
Someone had violated Mary Lynn. And it was very personal.
It wasn’t just that clothes had been stolen. The incident seemed to portend something disturbing.
Morrison: She was a pretty worried person.Olsen: She was. She was scared.
Something troubling had happened to Mary Lynn Witherspoon while she was visiting her mother: someone had gone through Mary Lynn’s suitcase, had stolen some clothes and makeup.
And right away, Mary Lynn’s mother knew who it must have been.
And soshe picked up the phone and called Tennant Brown.
Jackie Olsen, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's sister: And she told Tenant, she said, “I know that you broke in and that you got Mary Lynn’s things out of her suit case. Now bring them back.”Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Did he?Olsen: He did. He put them in a bag, and set the bag in my Momma’s car port.
What was the young man thinking? Why would he have taken those things?
Morrison: When you heard that. What was your gut reaction to that?Jane Welchel, Mary Lynn’s daughter: Disgusted and puzzled.
Mary Lynn returned to her sedate Charleston address and refused to press charges.
Olsen: Remember Mary Lynn had known him and his quirky ways since he was a tot. And she just always regarded him as a child that was irritating.
And then, suddenly, in 1991, he simply disappeared. He was gone for first a year, then two years, five, then eight.
Slowly, Mary Lynn relaxed. She stopped looking over her shoulder.
She concentrated on what she loved.
Olsen: She would take a group of students to France. She just wanted those children who otherwise would not have had a chance, to be exposed to that kind of culture. But she also did volunteer work with terminally ill children. So she just had a love for children.
And then, as suddenly as he left, he was back.
It was 2001 when she saw him standing there in her back yard. He was 30 now.
And he showed up again. And again.
Olsen: It wasn’t like he did it in such a sneaky way that he was trying to get out of the way before she got back or before she noticed. It was like “Here I am. See me.”
Those who loved Mary Lynn Witherspoon were concerned. Some of her friends even called Tennent’s father.
Olsen: They said, “Listen, Edmonds, you’ve got to do something about this kid. They said, "He’s driving Mary Lynn crazy. He’s bugging her, he’s stalking her. You’ve got to do something."Morrison: How would he respond?Olsen: Nothing.Morrison: Did he have much to do with his son at this time?Olsen: No.
There was one call that didn’t get made: Mary Lynn didn’t want to involve police.
After all, she would say, there was nothing criminal about standing in front of her house... was there?
And then there was that day in April of 2003...
Olsen: She went out one day to go get some clothes out of the dryer and all of her underwear was missing out of the dryer. Morrison: Underwear?Olsen: Underwear. So, you know, she realized, “Okay, Tenant has hit.”Morrison: She knew right away.
She could have called 911. She could likely have had him arrested. But she didn’t. Mary Lynn decided instead to try to protect herself.
Jane Whelchel: Had some kind of sophisticated alarm system put in the house. With a panic button on her keychain. And she carried mace on her keychain as well.Olsen: She even went to a gun shop and asked advice on what she needed to do. So, they advised her to carry pepper spray which she did.
Eventually, she talked to some local police officers she knew and asked them to keep an eye on her house.
Whelchel: They were driving and kind of watching the house and things like that. She had a stack of probably 20 cards from policemen.Morrison: Sitting there ready to call in case something happened?Whelchel: Yes.
And it wasn’t too long before something else did happen.
In July of 2003, Tennant Brown crossed some sort of stalking threshold when one day Mary Lynn came home from school.
Whelchel: He was in the backyard. So she spoke and said “I’m sorry I can’t visit, I’m running to PTA.” You know, went inside and changed and left for PTA.
Well, the next day, she saw him again in the backyard. But this time he had a pillowcase that was filled with her clothes.
Morrison: What did she do?Olsen: Well, she didn’t move. It was almost like she was stunned.
Like a deer caught in the headlights, Mary Lynn’s eyes locked with those of her stalker. What would Tennent Brown do now that she had finally caught him red-handed?
Tennent Brown had been in Mary Lynn Witherspoon’s life since he was a small child. Once she’d even contemplated marrying his father.
But he’d become a strange young man, had stalked her for years. And in July of 2003 his actions had gone beyond bizarre. He’d now brazenly stolen her most intimate things—and stood there, outside her window taunting her.
Jackie Olsen, Mary Lynn’s sister: He thought, “Okay, you know, she sees me. I wanna make sure she sees me now.”Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: He was trying to frighten her. Olsen: Uh-huh.
She had no way of knowing what he would do next. But much to her surprise, the young man boldly left her yard without saying a word without doing anything. Terrified,Mary Lynn called her sister, Jackie.
Olsen: She was fearful. You could hear it in her voice. And I told her, I said, “He knows you know that it was him, and if you don’t do something, what is he gonna do if he comes back?”Morrison: How did she respond to that?Olsen: She said, “I just don’t know what to do.”
Should she call the police and risk the wrath of her stalker? Or remain silent and hope it didn’t get worse?
The choice seemed horrible.
Jane Whelchel, Mary Lynn's daughter: She was afraid of retaliation—from pressing charges for his breaking into the laundry room. And myself, along with friends and family, kind of pushed her into doing that.
And so she finally reported Tennant to the police. The young man was picked up and charged with burgulary. A background check didn’t pick up much: he had spent a few years in the Coast Guard, then drifted from one menial job to the next.
It would also turn out that this was hardly the first time he’d had a run-in with the law. He’d been in and out of trouble for years for crimes like car theft and breaking and entering. On this latest charge he didn’t make bail. And in jail he stayed awaiting sentence.
Morrison: Once he was in prison, how did she feel?Whelchel: She felt safe. Safer. You know, for the time being.
Authorities would spend several months debating Tennent Brown’s future. Should he serve time in a regular jail or did he need serious mental health intervention?
But whatever they decided, Mary Lynn knew that eventually, he’d be back on the streets. And then... well, who knew?
And so she registered for a state program that would protect her. The Victim Notification System, or “Vine.”
Morrison: And what would that do for her?Olsen: Well, it would notify her when he is being transferred or released so that she would be prepared.
The promise was simple and direct: If Tennant was released, somebody would phone her right away and send a letter.
And so over the next four months, Mary Lynn relaxed and enjoyed a Charleston summer outside in her shaded neighborhood, finally free of dread.
She spent her time with her many friends and admirers. And with her was daughter Jane who’d married and moved a few hours away.
Mary Lynn resumed teaching in the fall. Things were normal again.
Sometimes, they say, there is—in nature, in life—an almost idyllic calm before the storm. "The storm" happened on November 14th.
Mary Lynn did something that wasn’t normal at all.
Whelchel: I got a phone call from my mom’s best friend. That said, “Your mother did not show up to school today. And she did not call a substitute.” Morrison: When you heard that, what was your first thought?Whelchel: First thought was that something terrible was wrong. Olsen: So the principal and one of the staff members went over to her house. Well, her car was gone. So the first thought was she’s off somewhere. And they knocked on the door, no answer. I mean there was no broken glass.
I mean there was no evidence of someone having broken in.
There were a million questions unanswered. And something close to panic.
Whelchel: You know, it’s a feeling that I can’t explain, you know, being three hours away. And knowing. Has she been car jacked? Has she been kidnapped? Has she fallen in the house?
As Mary Lynn’s daughter and her husband drove to Charleston, she authorized police to break into her mother’s house.
From the moment they entered they knew something was wrong.
Sgt. Barry N. Goldstein, Charleston police department: Mary Lynn was a person that kept a very well-kept house. And in the kitchen there was still some food on a plate. Eggs on a plate in the kitchen. We discovered shoes. An apple. Her watch lying on the floor.
Cautiously the police mounted the staircase and entered Mary Lynn’s sitting room.
Sgt. Goldstein: As you travel up the staircase into a sitting room, there was a lot of personal property.
In fact they were greeted by chaos. Drawers and closets had been rifled through, items strewn on the floor.
And then, they went into the bathroom.
Sgt. Goldstein: Mary Lynn was discovered in the second floor bathroom.
She was in the water. She was naked. She was dead. Her feet and hands were bound with tape. It appeared she’d been strangled. There was a knife nearby. She had been raped.
Olsen: It was the most awful nightmare you could ever imagine. I’ll never forget, I’ll never forget that call. And I just totally collapsed. My legs just wouldn’t even hold me up. And I just— I screamed. The whole neighborhood heard me.
Right away the family thought about one person. It was instinctive.
Olsen: My first question to my mother was “Where’s Tennent?” She said, "Well it can’t be Tenant, he’s still in jail.”
And besides there was more evidence which led in a whole new direction. And this was alarming.
Was Mary Lynn the only victim, or were there more?
Sgt. Goldstein: We found a pocketbook, some belongings belonging to a neighbor in the neighborhood. And at this time we had to make sure that that person was not a victim of a crime.Morrison: If there was one murder there may be another murder.Sgt. Goldstein: Yes.
On November 14th, the exclusive neighborhood around Tradd Street was horrified by the news that one of its most cherished citizens was dead, raped and murdered, and that police suspected it might not be the only murder.
Stanley Feldman, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's family friend: The thought that there was some random murderer in the neighborhood was very scary. I mean, stay in the house and don’t walk the dogs beyond the yards scary.
Because not far from Mary Lynn Witherspoon’s body, police found a purse that belonged to a neighbor named Elizabeth Bracket.
Police went searching for the neighbor, afraid of what they might find.
Sgt. Goldstein: We were able to find Elizabeth Bracket. And she was fine. She had told us that she was watching television between the hours of 11:30pm and 12:30am the night before. And she heard a noise. And she discovered her pocketbook to be missing out of her laundry room that morning when she got up.
But if the killer had broken into two homes, why had Mary Lynn been the only target?
Naturally her family’s thoughts turned to Tennent Brown, the only person who had ever menaced gentle Mary Lynn.
But he was safely behind bars, wasn’t he? Mary Lynn’s daughter asked police to make sure.
Jane Whelchel, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's daughter: I just thought, “Well— there is something that perhaps you should check into. Because there is somebody scary. But, you know, my belief is that he’s locked up. Could you let me know if Edmond Tennents Brown the IV is still in jail?” And the response was, “No.” And I said, “You’ve got him right there.” I immediately knew it was him.
The family was stunned. Mary Lynn, remember, was to have been notified the minute Tennent was set free.
But she hadn’t mentioned his release to anyone.
Whelchel: I had no idea. My mom had no idea that he had been released from prison.
But wasn’t she supposed to be informed? In fact, someone had been trying to call Mary Lynn. Or, rather, not someone. Something.
A machine had called. It was all automatic.
Olsen: And at the time of his release, after his release, they started trying to call her through the automated system.
But the automated system had no way to know if Mary Lynn actually received the warning. Though, if she had, she would still have been left defenseless.
Olsen: Had she checked her messages, she would have gotten the wrong message anyway, because the message that the VINE system was sending to her was that Edmunds Tenant Brown had been transferred to the South Carolina Department of Corrections.Morrison: Meaning he was still incarcerated.Olsen: But he wasn’t. He was free.
The written notice of Tennent’s status, also incorrect, had been sent out too.
And the letter reached Mary Lynn’s home the day after she was murdered.
And now, somewhere out there, Tennent Brown was free.
Police passed out Brown’s photo to the cops at the crime scene.
Whelchel: And the reaction was, “Oh my God. This guy has been walking these streets all day. We’ve seen him 14 different times walk up and down the street.”Morrison: Looking in. He’s one of the lookies— one of the people watching.Whelchel: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Talking to the neighbors. Morrison: What was your thought when you heard that?Sgt. Barry Goldstein: I knew he’d be back throughout the night.
And so they set a trap.
The crime scene unit was sent home, the house, abandoned.
A stakeout team silently watched.
Sgt. Barry Goldstein: And within 20 minutes, Tennant Brown came walking down Tradd Street. And the officer stopped him. And he identified himself as Tennant Brown.
But now, a problem: for Det. Goldstein to hold him, he had to prove Tennent Brown was not just another morbid curiosity seeker. So he started to question him.
Sgt. Goldstein: At which time he stated that he wanted an attorney. At which time I terminated any questioning.
And so, it was not anything Tennent said but rather what he turned out to be carrying that provided the evidence to arrest him.
Sgt. Goldstein: He had a set of keys. And I took the keys that he possessed. And I went up to the front of the house. And I was able to open the lock. Whelchel: He had in his possession, in his hands my mother’s keys—the panic button to her alarm system.
But there was something else. When they got to the police station they got a good look at the address on Tennent’s driver’s license.
Sgt. Goldstein: We noticed that he had the address where Mary Lynn where the incident took place. Morrison: He killed her in the morning. He then went and got a driver’s license in her address in the afternoon. And he was back in the evening looking at the crime scene across the tape.Sgt. Goldstein: Yes.
But what they found next was truly bizarre.
Sgt. Goldstein: He was wearing what was later identified to be her clothes.Morrison: What clothes were they?Sgt. Goldstein: They were undergarments. Along with one pair of slacks. Morrison: Wearing her underwear.Sgt. Goldstein: Her underwear.
For years, everyone had dismissed Tennent brown as an annoying misfit. Now it seemed that his problems lay deeper than anyone could have imagined.
The murder of Mary Lynn Witherspoon shook Charleston to it’s core. So lovely, she had been... so gracious and kind. So Southern.
The grief here was genuine. The whole town felt it.
Stanley Feldman, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's friend: At the funeral, it was standing room only in the French Huguenot Church. Church Street was closed. The children were out of school. And it was just something that you had to do.
And what was so strange, so sad, was that her life had apparently been taken by someone who could have been her son, someone she had known nearly all his life.
Jackie Olsen, Mary Lynn Witherspoon's sister: I pray to God that he came up behind her and that it ended that way rather than for her to turn around and see his face. I cannot comprehend the fear that she had her last few moments on this earth.
The police, meanwhile, were learning more about Tennant Brown, and his secret and twisted desires.
Sgt. Goldstein: He was wearing what was later identified to be her clothes.
But there was more than that. Nearby, police found Mary Lynn’s car… stolen by Tennent. Inside, he’d left some evidence.
Jane Whelchel, Mary Lynn's daughter: Found in my mom’s car were numerous pieces of paper where he had practiced my mom’s signature over and over and over.
Part of his plan was to take out a second mortgage on my mother’s address.
And stashed there in the car, a strange, rambling manifesto — his plan for a new life after prison. It was a blueprint that included murder.
Whelchel: It had everything from his grandmother’s recipe for Tippee pudding to plans for when he got out of prison to kill my mother. “Ice, MLW” which were my mom’s initials.
But why after all those years, through all kinds of trouble with the law had Tennent Brown suddenly become murderously violent?
Sgt. Goldstein: He feels she’s prosecuting him for the initial break-in in the laundry room. He grows angry. The anger gets worse as he sits in the Charleston County Jail.
When he gets out on bond, who is he going to take his anger out on but the victim.
Oh, but there was more than that. Even as the investigation continued, a FedEx package arrived at Mary Lynn’s front door. It had been ordered by Tennent after the murder. It had been charged to Mary Lynn’s credit card. Police opened the package. It took a minute to comprehend.
Olsen: In the box was a wig of her hair color. Breast forms. Makeup for men. A drag queen video. And some other things that would help him look more like a woman. And hopefully look like her.Morrison: What was he trying to do?Olsen: He wanted to be her. And he knew to be her he had to get rid of her first.
And now, for police, the strange discoveries fell into place. That box, with its weird desires, made sense of phone numbers police had found in Tennent’s manifesto— unusual out of state phone numbers.
Sgt. Goldstein: [They were of] doctors of surgery that were familiar with the changing of genders.
In fact police also discovered a letter from Brown explicitly outlining his fervent desire to change sexes. It was a desperately disturbing struggle that Brown had been fighting for years. A struggle that had ended in murder.
By the time DNA results conclusively identified Tennent Brown as the killer, police had pieced together a narrative of Mary Lynn Witherspoon’s last desperate minutes on earth.
Sgt. Goldstein: We believe that he got her on the way to work in the morning. He either knocked on the door and she opened the door to converse with him. Or he forced his way in when she opened the door but there would be a struggle at the front foyer. Where she would drop her jewelry which she had in her hand. She would drop her apple. Drop her shoes.
And he would forcibly take her up the staircase. We found that the fourth spigot in the staircase had been kicked out.
Morrison: She was struggling.Sgt. Goldstein: Struggling to resist her assailant.
Once upstairs, Tennent raped Mary Lynn, strangled her, and left her body in the bathtub.
Then he went to the kitchen, cooked himself a breakfast of eggs, and prepared to take over her property, and her life... as a woman.
Whelchel: I mean, did he really think that he was going to put this wig and these foam breasts and all of the other things—and go to the bank and the people that she does business with would really think that that was my mom? Seems a bit absurd.
Absurd? Of course. But it all seemed part of the deadly battle going on in the confused brain of Tennent Brown.
Morrison: This was a guy who was planning to kill her.Sgt. Goldstein: He had his mind made up.
But why? Why did he focus on Mary Lynn Witherspoon? What was it all those years that drew him to her again and again that drove him to murder the object of his desire?
Olsen: He wanted everything she possessed. Beauty, charm, kindness, love.
Now Mary Lynn’s family was left to wonder how this dangerously confused man had ever been released from jail at all. As the family dug deeper they encountered a cascade of wrong turns and missed warning signs. During a 2002 incarceration, Tennent had been evaluated as bipolar and later on would be identified as having gender dysphoria, a kind of confusion over what gender he really was.
And after his last arrest, his case was assigned to South Carolina’s mental health court. His release was conditional on counseling, and medication and supervision.
And nobody noticed that for months he had been furiously scrawling his deadly agenda.
Olsen: And when he left jail on the 10th of November, he carried with him an inch thick stack of paper describing exactly how he was going to kill Mary Lynn and take on her identity. If anyone had stopped and asked to see those papers—this whole thing would have never happened.
But officials had no legal right to read his private papers while he was in jail. So on Monday, November 10th an outwardly peaceful Tennent Brown was delivered to an outpatient mental health center.
Olsen: They took the handcuffs off, and he was free. He went in to talk with a mental health counselor, then she released him, only after he gave his address as Mary Lynn’s address.
A burglar who gives the address of his victim as his own? If there was ever such a thing as a red flag, surely that would be it. But after his interview Tennent was told he was free to leave.
Olsen: So, obviously, she had no records on him, nothing. She told him to come back on Wednesday for an appointment. He didn’t show up. Feldman: The minute he doesn’t show up or the minute he doesn’t report, it’s an emergency. And something had to be done at that instant. And he needs to be picked up. He needs to be arrested immediately.
Yet, no alarm was sounded.
Instead Tennet, now a free man, prowled the manicured streets of Charleston, putting in place his plan to kill Mary Lynn Witherspoon.
And so, among her family members, despair was overlaid with anger and the sister who had been so close to Mary Lynn was consumed by a fierce need.
Olsen: I realized I was going to have to do something, because I could not keep living like I was living.
Mary Lynn Witherspoon had made a life anybody could envy— head-turning attractive, bright, kind, and in her city, loved.
Until a young man obsessed by her life had taken it and had harbored secret desires to be a woman, had tried to become Mary Lynn.
And now to its horror, her family was discovering that the state’s legal system had tragically misread his dangerous mental condition... and released a human time bomb.
And then had produced a fatal clerical glitch that failed to adequately warn the one woman who had begged to be informed.
And now, that that same legal system was unable to give them a logical reason why.
Jackie Olsen, Mary Lyn Witherspoon's sister: I was so consumed in anger that I was almost dysfunctional. I realized I was going to have to do something, because I could not keep living like I was living.
Mary Lynn’s sister Jackie laid out the whole sorry mess in a fiery letter to South Carolina congressman Merrill Smith and then delivered it in person.
Olsen: And the more he read, the more awful he looked. He said, “My gosh, this is what I do for a living.” And he said, “I’m supposed to be protecting victims.” And I told him, I said, “The law must be changed.” And I saw him at a get together probably about ten days later. He said, “We’re ready to roll.” He said, “And it’s gonna be called Mary Lynn’s law.”
Governor Mark Sanford: Mary Lynn never knew that her stalker had been released…
It took just 4 months. Mary Lynn’s law improved notification procedures, increased victim’s rights and provided stricter penalties for stalkers. Jackie held a picture of her sister as Governor Mark Sanford signed the bill into law on May 26, 2005.
Olsen: This is what Mary Lynn would’ve wanted, because she always wanted to make life better for others.
Tennent Brown pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to life without parole. The state would have sought the death penalty, but Mary Lynn’s family chose to avoid a trial.
Olsen: I know they probably would have had pictures of the crime scene and Mary Lynn’s body. Mary Lynn was a very, very private person.I knew Mary Lynn well enough to know she would have said, “Jackie, no, please no.”
Today, historic Tradd Street is quiet again. Genteel. The shutters and lace curtains of its grand old houses closed against the noonday sun, and the curious eyes of the tourists who wander in this far…
Mary Lynn Witherspoon lies buried nearby beside her beloved French Huggenot church.
She’s beyond pain now, unlike those she left behind.
Olsen: The old adage—“Time heals all wounds,” whoever made that up never had this happen to them, because time doesn’t heal. Now time does make things more tolerable. But you don’t forget. There’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about Mary Lynn.
Even though Tennent Brown pleaded guilty, he’s now asking for a new trial, claiming that he received inadequate representation by the public defender assigned to his case.