A Covid-19 death sentence showcases an inhumane and illogical punishment system

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Faye Brown
Faye Brown

Last week, the state announced that an unnamed prisoner had become the first person to die from a Covid-19 outbreak at North Carolina Women’s Prison. The person was Faye Brown, and her death is the end of a 45-year story that demonstrates the cruelty and excess of our punishment system.

In a humane system, this 67-year-old woman who reformed herself in every way possible would have gotten a second chance at life in the free world. In that world, she would have had at least the possibility of protecting herself from a deadly virus. But in our system, which prides itself on unending punishment at any cost, a life sentence turned into a death sentence.

Brown earned a cosmetology degree in prison and, for many years, held a full time job at a cosmetology school. Because of her clean disciplinary record, she was in minimum custody and earned the privilege of work release. She was beloved by people outside and inside prison, becoming like a mother to many incarcerated women. “She was everybody’s confidant and friend,” one woman told the News & Observer.

She spent two-thirds of her life paying for a crime she committed 1975. At 22 years old, Faye Brown was one of three people involved in a bank robbery in Martin County. No one was injured in the robbery, but shortly afterward, a highway patrolman stopped their car. In a split second, one of the men in the car shot and killed Trooper Guy Thomas Davis Jr. 

There was no evidence that Brown planned or participated in the trooper’s killing, but she was convicted of first-degree murder under North Carolina’s felony murder rule. The rule says that if you’re involved in a crime that leads to murder, you’re as culpable as the person who pulls the trigger. It’s an unforgiving rule that has sent several people who did not kill to North Carolina’s death row. Some of them remain there today.

Brown’s conviction happened during an era when racial disparities in the criminal punishment system were even more glaring than they are today, so the fact that she and her co-defendants were black, and the slain trooper was white, almost surely contributed to the lack of mercy she was shown.

In North Carolina at that time, a first-degree murder conviction came with an automatic death sentence. But a few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty unconstitutional, and Brown’s sentence was changed from death to life. Today, life sentences come with no possibility of parole. But at that time, a life sentence meant a maximum of 80 years and could be reduced with good behavior credits. 

Brown had good behavior credits in spades, and in 2009, a judge ordered her release. However, the higher courts blocked her release after a political outcry, and created new law saying that good behavior didn’t apply to life sentences, dooming not just Brown but many other prisoners too. 

Then-governor Beverly Perdue was outraged at the idea that Brown might leave prison. “This is not how government and the courts are supposed to work for the people of North Carolina,” Perdue said. “This is wrong. I’ve been in politics a long time, and I have never been this disgusted with the system in my life.”

In fact, Brown’s release is exactly how the system is supposed to work, if it’s about justice instead of punishment for punishment’s sake. It should ensure public safety by incarcerating dangerous people and helping them reform. Once they can demonstrate that they are no longer a threat to society, they should be able to return to productive lives on the outside.

Instead, Brown was told that one youthful mistake was the end for her. She would never get another shot at freedom, no matter how hard she worked to change her life. 

When the pandemic began creeping into prisons, advocates at the ACLU and other organizations began raising alarms, asking for the release of older and medically vulnerable people who were no longer dangerous. If anyone fit that category, it was Faye Brown. 

But our system chose to keep her in prison despite the risks. We as a society chose to let her die rather than show even the smallest bit of mercy.

—May 13, 2020