Select-It-Sunday: The Brown Family [with some revision, in italics]

Selected by Celeste: virtually the entire Brown family who vanished from St. Lucie, Florida on July 25, 1985. There’s mom Carolyn Denise, age 27, oldest child Sheketah Michele, age 11, and the two younger children, Barry Michael, age 6, and Brandon Mitchell, age 2. They vanished together with the father of the family, James, in July 1985.

Now, these are not terribly mysterious disappearances: they are MWAB (murder-without-a-body) cases and the perpetrator was James. James confessed to all four murders, but he was tried only for Sheketah and Carolyn’s deaths because he had dumped Barry’s and Brandon’s in a different spot along an interstate highway and authorities weren’t sure whether this was in Georgia or Florida. It looks like it was supposed to be a murder-suicide, since James also shot himself in the head.

James was diagnosed with schizophrenia, found not guilty by reason of insanity later in 1985, and confined to a mental hospital. He was sent to a halfway house in 1996 and then released altogether in 1997. Last I knew, he was still having psychiatric problems and they were thinking about re-committing him, but that was a long time ago and I don’t know where he is or how he’s doing today. It’s pretty hard to find a guy with a name like “James Brown.”

[I found an article about James from 2002. It says he’s living in a small town in Florida, keeping very much to himself and working part-time at his brother’s funeral home. He’s still taking anti-psychotic drugs and sees a social worker every month but that seems to be it as far as “supervision” goes. He has very little to say about his wife and children, and his own family copes by pretending they just disappeared and he didn’t kill them.]

Now, let me say first that I think we need to use not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI) a lot more often than we do. I see so many people who are clearly bat-guano crazy — Jared Lee Loughner comes to mind, and also Andrea Yates — and were sentenced to life in prison anyway. (Yes, I know Andrea got a new trial and is now in a mental hospital. I think that’s where she should have been placed the first time around. I actually contributed to her defense fund.) America’s prisons are full of people who are very mentally sick and need treatment, not punishment; I’ve read that the largest psychiatric ward in California is located in the Los Angeles County Jail. It’s not helping them, and it’s not helping society, because these people don’t get adequate treatment for their illnesses in jail, and when they get out and they are probably going to get locked up again very quickly as a result of their brain conditions. So much money is spent incarcerating people, and so little on beds in psychiatric hospitals, and adequate community care so people don’t get so sick they need to be hospitalized. It’s a disgrace and, in my opinion, a human rights violation. (Feel free to debate this in the comments section, but please, no flame wars or general nastiness.)

But getting off my soapbox, and back to the Brown family, from what little information I have, I’m not sure James was truly insane at the time he committed the murders.

I believe he must have had schizophrenia, the most disabling of all psychiatric illnesses, or the psychiatrists wouldn’t have diagnosed him as such. [According to the aforementioned article, there was a history of both mental illness and violence in his family.] Assuming he was around the same age as Carolyn, he was the right age: it usually hits you in your late teens or early twenties and gets steadily worse without treatment. So it could have hit him in late high school or in college and his mental condition could have been deteriorated until by his late twenties/early thirties he was in a sorry state (though still, curiously, doing well enough to keep a job as a teacher).

[The article I found doesn’t state his age but now I think he must actually have been several years older than Carolyn. I’m judging this because it said he had been married before, and Carolyn was only around seventeen when she married James. It says his symptoms of mental illness began in the mid-1970s, before he married Carolyn, and so his schizophrenia had around ten years to manifest itself by the time of the shooting in 1985.]

But to be found NGI, you have to be not only mentally ill but so severely sick you don’t know right from wrong. James made clear attempts to cover up his crimes: he painted over the bloodstains in his home, fled the area without telling anyone, disposed of his wife and children’s bodies in such a way that they have never been found, and sought hospital treatment for his gunshot wound while using a false name and lying about how he sustained the injury. He didn’t confess to the murders until after they found out his story about being mugged was a lie. [The article says James admitted to the reporter that he lied in his confession also, which explains why the police couldn’t find a lot of evidence to back it up and why they never found the bodies.] All of this sounds like cognizance of guilt to me.

But what do I know? Not that much. There must have been some reason why the psychiatrists thought he was NGI and why the jury [article says it was actually a judge] came to agree with them. Maybe it was because he had tried to commit suicide after the murders. I really don’t know. I wish I could see the trial documents, at least the psychiatrists’ testimony.

In any event, the case can’t truly be closed until the bodies of this poor family have been located and buried properly. I hope this happens — one or more of them may be listed as John Does somewhere — but I’m not holding my breath.

If they were still alive, Carolyn would be 56, Sheketah would be 39, Barry 35 (today is his birthday actually), and Brandon 30. Madness struck them all down.