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.

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

  1. jaclyn December 29, 2013 / 1:57 am

    Mental illness, and the care for those suffering from it, is one of America’s greatest challenges, a bane to our society. I agree with you, this is definitely a human rights violation upon those being pushed aside and overlooked. In the skid row area of Los Angeles, you can find many of those with mental illness that have been dumped out on the streets, possibly after being incarcerated, living in detestable situations, and trying to survive. Yes, I also agree that many of those found in jails are receiving inadequate care, and have no access to proper medication or getting consistent therapy. They are a danger to themselves and others. It literally breaks my heart to see how those with mental illnesses are treated. Until metal illness has touched someone personally, either themselves or a loved one, it appears that empathy will not solve this atrocity anytime soon in our nation!

  2. Celeste December 29, 2013 / 3:14 am

    I agree with you jaclyn, Mental illness is the kind of thing that just isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. James could have easily been treated for his schizofrenia with the right kinds of medications and psychiatric help. I’m assuming that he refused treatment? I think that there’s a need to take mental illness seriously. There’s no closure for Carolyn’s family until her body and the bodis of her the kids are found.

    • Meaghan December 29, 2013 / 10:12 am

      One symptom of severe mental illness is in the inability to recognize you are ill. Many people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have this symptom, and of course they’re not going to accept hospitalization and medicine for a disease they don’t believe they have. It’s possible to force mentally ill people to get treatment, but VERY difficult, especially if the person is not obviously suicidal or homicidal. The burden of proof is on you to show that they’re not competent to manage their own medical affairs.

  3. Princess Shantae December 29, 2013 / 8:30 am

    I agree with Meaghan that its pretty suspicious that James was able to function well enough to keep on with his teaching, and sharp enough to try to cover up his crime, and sharp enough to hide the bodies where they haven’t been found for 28 years. I think he’s a very good actor and that’s why the jury bought it.

    • Meaghan December 29, 2013 / 3:59 pm

      The article I found was pretty revealing. If you want I could email you the entire text. I’m hesitant to make a judgement based on a single newspaper article, especially since journalism is always about getting an “angle” and all, but from the interview it sounds like James does certainly have schizophrenia but may also be a psychopath on top of that. The one does not exclude the other.

  4. Zorro December 29, 2013 / 1:15 pm

    Mental illness is a knotty problem which no society I know of has solved.

    In the West historically we have swung between forcible commitment to mental institutions (which usually have deteriorated into houses of horrors) or leaving these people to their own devices, with criminal incarceration as a backup. This approach too has its horrors.

    Some societies have made shamans or other witch doctors out of the more tractable of the insane, but this has never worked for everyone.

    The psychoactive drugs we now have are not anything like as efficient or effective as the newspapers would have you believe. They do sometimes make a dramatic difference in the lives of the marginally functional, but it is a mistake to think of them as cure-alls. And they have horrendous side effects if used for long periods of time.

    At a minimum I think we should strive for humane treatment which also protects the community. The Los Angeles jail falls far short of that standard. It was never designed to function as a mental hospital.

  5. Kat December 29, 2013 / 3:13 pm

    I could swear I read somewhere a while back that he was dead. James Brown, that is. Unless I’ve got him confused with another family annihilator, and that’s possible.

    • Meaghan December 29, 2013 / 3:32 pm

      Okay, I checked and found an article about James Brown from 2002. It said he spent ten years in a state mental hospital after the mass murder of his family, then eighteen months in a halfway house, and now (as of the 2002 article) lives in Midway, Florida. He works part-time at his brother’s funeral home answering phones and stuff (doesn’t handle the bodies) and once a month he meets with social workers and receives his anti-psychotic drugs by extended-release injection.

      I’ll email you the text of the article.

      • Kat December 29, 2013 / 5:01 pm

        Thanks. Hotmail is a nightmare right now, can’t really access anything for the last two days but I’ll let you know what I think. And I did just realized I do have him confused with another missing family…a brother who chased around his sister and her kids with an ax or some such. I’ll have to figure that out.

  6. Jose December 29, 2013 / 8:58 pm

    would you count this guy a serial killer?

    • Kat December 29, 2013 / 10:01 pm

      depends on your definition.

    • Meaghan January 3, 2014 / 9:17 am

      He would be a mass murderer.

    • Holly January 4, 2014 / 3:15 pm definition (and general definition of a serial killer Serial killer is a term describing a type of killer who kills a number of people over a long period of time. They are generally male and motivated by a variety of psychological urges, primarily power. The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics defines a serial killing as: “[involving] the killing of several victims in three or more separate events.” They are distinguished from spree killers in that they have rest periods between killings.

  7. Katie December 30, 2013 / 10:25 am

    This man never should have been released. Ridiculous.

  8. Lee Atwater December 30, 2013 / 8:24 pm

    What the hell happened with Loughner, anyway? I figured that would be as close to a slam dunk for an insanity plea as you can get, and then he suddenly drops everything and takes the deal for life in prison?

    • Kat December 30, 2013 / 9:26 pm

      I don’t think he was crazy enough to want to die…or spend the next thirty in solitary anyway. Just my cynical opinion.

    • Meaghan January 1, 2014 / 10:41 am

      He’s doing LWOP, but he’s in the prison psychiatric section.

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