- The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case that Shook the Texas Prison System
Three months before his parole hearing, Eroy Brown killed two prison officials at the Ellis Prison Farm. Wallace Pack, the warden, and Billy Max Moore, the farm manger, were the highest ranking Texas Department of Corrections officers ever to lose their lives while on duty. Brown claimed that the killings were in self-defense; Michael Berryhill agrees. The chair of the Journalism program at Texas Southern University, Berryhill combines the methods of an historian with the storytelling skill of a reporter, resulting in a dramatic story of an African American prisoner's nightmare in a prison system operated under a plantation mentality. By using courtroom testimony, newspaper accounts, archival materials, and documents from the Ruíz v. Estelle case, Berryhill provides a well-written narrative that convincingly persuades the reader of Brown's innocence while at the same time discrediting a correctional system in which both the inmates and the guards were prisoners of the same culture.
Just months before the events at Ellis, federal judge William Wayne Justice handed down a decision in a court proceeding brought by inmate David Ruíz. Ruíz charged that the Texas Department of Corrections, under the leadership of director Jim Estelle, had created an atmosphere that condoned cruel and unusual punishment. The seven-year case culminated in Justice's 1980 ruling in favor of Ruíz. Included in his decision were graphic descriptions of prisoner abuse; among those detailed were the case of a paralyzed inmate who was forced to drag himself on the ground as guards denied him a wheelchair, and prisoners who suffered electrical shocks, rapes, beatings, as well as a number of suspicious inmate deaths. Eroy Brown and his fellow inmates at Ellis existed in the same environment described by Justice. During Brown's trial, inmates testified that newly arrived prisoners met a "welcoming committee" that beat them in order to demonstrate who was in charge and that any challenge to the authority of prison officials would not be tolerated. Prisoners described being forced to fight dogs for the amusement of officials and claimed that solitary confinement was the common form of punishment for even the most insignificant infractions.
This environment explains why Brown, taken by Pack and Moore by car to a river bank away from the nearest prison structure, was convinced that his life was in jeopardy. During the trials (there would be three involving the killings), Ellis inmates repeatedly explained that prisoners taken to the river bank were either beaten or killed. In addition, Pack had a pistol. One golden rule among guards [End Page 327] was that a firearm must never be brought within a prisoner's reach. Brown argued that the presence of the gun, the fact that he had been taken to the river bank, and that the two correctional officers appeared intent on doing him harm resulted in his taking action to defend himself. Brown's attorneys' came to his defense out of a spirit of justice, not because of a court mandate. Bill Hebern read about the case and volunteered to defend Brown, knowing that he would receive little money upfront to finance the defense. Newly elected Texas legislator Craig Washington joined the legal team and provided an emotional defense of Brown in the court room. The jury found Brown innocent.
The only weakness of the book is the suggestion that the Brown case dramatically changed the prison system in Texas. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) Michelle Alexander rightfully concludes that little has changed for people of color who are poor.