What should Illinois do with Joy Brown?
She spent five years in an abusive relationship with Damien Brown, her former husband and the father of her first two children. The system didn’t seem to know what to do with him. The police would arrest him, he’d sit in jail, and when he was ready to plead guilty to battery and promise never to do it again, he’d be released. And Joy would take him back. So the convictions piled up–two misdemeanors and two felonies–but the routine stayed pretty much the same. A guilty plea, probation, aggressive-offender classes, and he’d be on his way.
But on the night of February 20, 2000, after Joy had divorced Damien and obtained an order of protection against him, he was burned with hot oil in her house in Edwardsville, Illinois. She says he broke into the house, raped her, and refused to leave. Damien says she invited him in, had consensual sex with him, and then they argued. By the end of the evening Damien was being treated in a Saint Louis hospital for third-degree burns to his face, legs, and chest.
Now Joy was the one in handcuffs, and the system started to go through the same routine: plead guilty and take probation, they told her. But Joy didn’t accept the offer, insisting the oil had spilled on Damien accidentally. The case went to trial, a jury found her guilty of heinous battery, a felony, and she’s now serving six years minimum in the women’s prison in Lincoln.
Should she be there?
The Chicago-based Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women doesn’t think so; it’s filed a clemency petition on her behalf. Former Madison County prosecutor Anthony Rothert, who knew Joy and prosecuted Damien, doesn’t think so either. “The ironic or sad thing is that it was really the grease incident that made him leave her alone,” he says. “That was what did it. None of the court orders ever did, none of the treatment ever worked, none of the threats of prosecution from the police ever made him stay away from her. The legal system didn’t protect her and keep him away, and finally what she did worked.”
But the state’s attorney of Madison County thinks the system worked just fine, and says that if anyone tried to manipulate it, Joy did. “She concocted abuse stories,” says William Haine, who’s fighting the clemency project’s attempt to get Joy out of prison. “She used the power of the state’s attorney’s office to file domestic battery charges against Damien to keep him in line, because Damien was not faithful to her.”
What began as a debate about clemency for Joy Brown has become a debate about whether she was ever a battered woman. Haine’s claims notwithstanding, police reports, court files, case notes from a social worker, and the personal recollections of friends and family as well as of Anthony Rothert all paint a picture of Joy and Damien locked in a cycle of abuse and forgiveness. “With all the evidence,” says attorney Margaret Byrne, director of the clemency project, “it’s pretty absurd to deny that she was a battered woman.”
Rothert was shocked to hear Haine, his former boss, do just that. “I think it’s out of her being a victim that this happened,” he says. Rothert has submitted to the prisoner review board an eight-page affidavit that accuses Haine of presenting “inaccurate, unfair, and–in portions–untruthful information.”
Joy Brown is one of four women on whose behalf the clemency project has petitioned Governor Ryan. Three of the four were convicted in Madison County, which is just across the Mississippi River from and northeast of Saint Louis; Edwardsville’s the county seat. In response, Haine launched a campaign to ensure that all three women–and Joy Brown in particular–serve every day of their sentences. He insisted that the prisoner review board hear the cases, though none of the women had requested a hearing, and he traveled to Springfield to testify against them.
Ryan is under no obligation to review the petitions, and a spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune that whether the governor even considers them will depend on “what’s going to be on his desk at what time.” With over 120 death penalty clemency cases to review and his term running out, desk space may be in short order.
Joy Brown, 24, is petite, smart, and exceedingly polite. Recounting the life that has taken her from a sheltered childhood spent within the confines of a conservative religious community to the walls of the Lincoln Correctional Center 180 miles south of Chicago, she has the air of someone mistakenly locked inside an asylum and unable to convince her captors of her sanity.
Joy grew up in Micanopy, Florida, living in a farmhouse that doubled as the House of Prayer for All People, an ecumenical, nondenominational Christian church that adhered strictly to Old Testament behavioral codes. Members of the community would come together for prayer three times a day; women dressed in long skirts, covered their heads, and sat with the children in church separated from the men; the biblical dietary restrictions that form the basis of Jewish kosher laws were observed, and the church recognized Saturday as the Sabbath. “We were trying to really live like the Bible,” says Joy. “I wasn’t allowed to watch any movies past 1960. I was, like, an AMC freak. I remember I got in trouble one time because I got hooked on Star Trek, and that’s past 1960.”
Church members rarely ventured into the outside world, even to shop, raising food on the farm instead. When they did leave it was usually to evangelize to drug addicts. “It was an outreach ministry,” says Joy’s mother, Elizabeth Young, “to help people who had [drug] problems.”
Because Joy’s charismatic father, Jonah Young, was the church’s pastor, Joy says, she got special treatment, and despite the restrictive rules and social isolation, she recalls her childhood fondly: “I was very spoiled. I had my own playhouse. I had my own little garden, where I used to plant watermelon seeds. We had horses and animals. It was like Little House on the Prairie.”
But in March of 1988, when Joy was ten, Jonah was replacing an axle on his truck when it fell on him, and the axle crushed his windpipe. The church began to fall apart after his death. By this time it had attracted a sizable number of recovering addicts, and many of these new members were running from the law. The police began showing up with warrants.
There were more legal problems. In 1992 Joy’s mother gave a bath to a girl who’d been sent by her parents to live in the church community. Elizabeth sprinkled laundry detergent into the water to create bubbles, but the girl had eczema and her skin broke out, with second-degree burns in places. Joy’s mother treated the child with the traditional herbs that church members used in lieu of modern medicines, but when the girl’s parents came to visit, they were enraged. They filed a $300,000 lawsuit against Elizabeth, accusing her of child endangerment.
“That put the cap on it,” says Elizabeth; she decided to leave the church community. “Fear is what made me leave. I found out after I left that [the police] were looking for me and I thought they would take Joy, so I never went back.” Nine years later Elizabeth settled the civil suit for $305,000, paid by an insurance policy, and pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of third-degree child abuse. Her punishment was the 192 days she’d already spent in jail.
After Micanopy, Joy and her mother bounced around several church communities before arriving at a church in Alton, Illinois, in 1994. Joy had spent her childhood being home schooled and she’d had few friends her own age. In Alton the home schooling continued, but Elizabeth had to work and Joy was left at home to teach herself. “I was 15, and I was lonely,” she recalls, “because there wasn’t anybody of my race or anybody really who could relate to what I had been through.”
As Joy entered adolescence, she began to rebel. She sought out forbidden movies and books (she remembers Purple Rain and a William Shatner memoir). After a series of clashes, Elizabeth agreed to allow Joy to attend a local Catholic high school for the second semester of her junior year. But she got permission from the principal to make Joy’s school uniforms herself, and instead of the culottes that the other girls wore, Joy wore ankle-length skirts and covered her head. “The hard part about it was not being able to perform in gym,” says Joy. “People would laugh.”
Joy made a couple of friends at school but she wasn’t allowed to see them socially. “We exchanged phone numbers,” she says, “but I could only call at certain times, and my mom didn’t really like me talking to them because they were girls who were out there in the world. She didn’t want them to badly influence me.” The summer of 1995, following her first semester of school, Joy’s mother began granting her small freedoms, like riding the bus to the local store. Joy was 17. The day she took her first bus ride alone she met Damien Brown.
“I was going to the store to get something for my mom,” recalls Joy, “and that was when I met Tony, Damien’s uncle, on the bus. He convinced me to take the bus all the way to the Alton Square Mall, to meet Damien and his other uncle. They really impressed me–they didn’t treat me funny, because of the way I was dressed and everything, they were acting like they really wanted to be my friends. So we made plans that we were going to meet at the mall the next day, and then I started sneaking, hanging out with them. This was like the first time I was able to hang out with kids my age.”
Joy soon concluded that Damien and his uncles (who were only a few years older than Damien) were going to the mall to steal and that they wanted her to join them. “I told them it was a sin to steal, and I wasn’t gonna steal. But I still wanted to hang out with them. I knew they were being bad, but it was like I didn’t want to give up the little friendship I had started.”
“I never stole anything in my life,” says Damien, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to possession of a stolen vehicle. “I don’t know what they were doing.”
Joy had little experience with boys. At 13 she’d sneaked a kiss from a boy visiting the church community, only to be reprimanded by her mother. “She told me that kissing was just like sex,” says Joy. “She said, ‘The Bible says “Flee fornication,” and you’re not fleeing it if you’re kissing.'”
Damien and his two uncles all tried to get Joy to be their girlfriend, she says, and as she tells the story she still seems flattered by their attention. “They were always trying to say, ‘Oh, I want to be your man,’ and ‘We’re gonna get married. I need a nice churchwoman.’ They told me, ‘Because you can’t make up your mind, whichever one kisses the best you’ll go with.’ Me not knowing nothing about nothing, I kissed ’em all like, OK.”
Joy says when it became clear she wasn’t willing to go beyond kissing, all three boys began teasing her viciously. “I was crushed,” Joy says, her voice cracking, “because I finally thought I was accepted by people in the outside world, and then they turned on me. At first they said I was like this wonderful person, the girl of their dreams, ’cause I was in the church. But because I didn’t want to do anything with them they started saying I was this horrible person, like I was this freak of nature or something.”
Elizabeth Young wanted to meet Joy’s new friends. Joy brought them over, and her mother ordered her never to spend time with them again. But Joy kept at it, even sneaking them into the house when her mother was out, knowing the adolescent thrill of doing something illicit.
Eventually, despite her mother’s intense disapproval, Joy started spending time alone with Damien. Closer to her age than his uncles, he was also, according to Joy, the cruelest of the three. “Damien would pick on me worse than anybody. It was like he couldn’t stand me.” Damien’s contempt only made her more determined to gain his favor.
Joy says he coerced her into having sex. “He said, let’s go in the basement, and I was like, ‘Oh God.’ I can’t believe I put myself in this bad predicament. He started fondling me and I didn’t like it, but at that point I’d rather be accepted. He started unzipping his pants with the other hand, and I said, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing!’ I started screaming. I was crying, ‘Stop! Stop!’ He wouldn’t stop. So finally I just gave in.”
Damien says he doesn’t recall the first time in any detail, but he denies ever having forced Joy to have sex with him.
“Afterwards,” says Joy, “I was like, ‘OK, I guess we’re gonna be together now.'”
Things progressed from there. “He told me that he didn’t need to use condoms. He told me to drink vinegar and I wouldn’t get pregnant. So after every time we had sex I drank vinegar.” Joy was pregnant by the end of the summer.
According to Joy, the first time Damien hit her it was over a dress she’d secretly purchased a few months after they met–“a long dress with a slit all up my thigh.” She recalls the night vividly. “I was so happy, I was thinking that Damien is really going to like this, now I’m kind of fitting in.” His friends were impressed with the transformation. “They were like, ‘Joy, I ain’t never seen you look like this before.’ So Damien just flipped out. He accused me of sleeping with his cousin, then he punched me. My face was all bloody, my nose was busted, my lips were busted, everything was busted. His uncles got him off me. I couldn’t believe it, ’cause I knew he knew I wasn’t sleeping with his cousin. He was just making this all up. I couldn’t understand it.”
Damien says he doesn’t remember such an incident.
Joy told her mother that she’d slipped and fallen, but Elizabeth thought she was lying. She says she contacted Damien’s mother, who told her that Joy and Damien had been having sex and she thought Joy might be pregnant. (Debra Thomas, Damien’s mother, says she doesn’t remember such a conversation.) Elizabeth took Joy to a clinic and it turned out she was.
Damien’s family questioned whose child it was. “I started hearing all these rumors,” Joy recalls bitterly, “about how they didn’t know who the child’s father was, and they brought out about how I had kissed them all. And [Damien’s uncles] lied and said I had sex with them too. They said the reason I wore long skirts was because it was easy access, that I was an undercover whore. They said I wore head coverings so they wouldn’t have to pull my hair when they was doing it.”
Joy’s pregnancy kept her from going back to the Catholic high school in the fall. She found work as a salesclerk, then as a telemarketer, while completing her GED at a local community college and starting college courses. During this time Joy had little contact with Damien, but she did become close with Keshia, Damien’s sister. “[Damien] and Keshia, they treated me like I was both of their woman. When me and Damien were into it, Keshia would love me and hate Damien. But then, when me and him were getting along, she’d love Damien and hate me.”
Eventually the two women fell out. “I don’t really remember what it was about,” says Keshia, “but it had something to do with her getting back together with my brother.”
In May of 1996, nearly a year after Joy’s first encounter with Damien, Jonah was born. Damien wanted to see his son, and she allowed him to visit. “At this time I didn’t necessarily want to be with him anymore,” says Joy, “’cause I knew he was bad news, but I wanted him to accept Jonah and treat him as his own.” She says that after a while it became clear to her that Damien wasn’t coming over for the baby. “Every time he would come and see Jonah, he wanted to have sex. For a while I said no, no, no. So he stopped coming.” Eventually, Joy says, the two did resume having sex, with Joy hopeful that it would keep Damien interested in Jonah. “At the time I really didn’t have like a real interest in Joy,” says Damien, who describes their relationship as “mostly just a sex thing.” He says, “It was more like I was coming to see my son.”
Unaware of the existence of free clinics, Joy had no access to a doctor except through her mother. And her mother was unaware that Joy and Damien were sleeping together or even seeing each other. “She said, ‘What’s the use of getting on birth control if you’re not going to sin against God again?'” Joy became pregnant again almost immediately and was devastated when she found out. She considered abortion, but her mother convinced her to keep the child.
According to Joy, Damien denied that the unborn child was his. “He pushed me on the ground and punched me and threw a rock at me. I had a big old knot on the side of my head that swelled up.” Says Damien, “I don’t recall nothing like that. I claimed my daughter from the jump.” But court records show that in April 1997 Joy obtained an order of protection against Damien, and that Damien eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery.
By that August the order of protection had been dismissed at Joy’s request, and she was seeing Damien again. “He had this routine,” says Rothert, the former assistant state’s attorney. “He’d admit that he hit her and say how he was sorry and how he needed help because he didn’t want to hurt her anymore. It was believable the first time. He was a good manipulator; he also struck me as someone who could be quite dangerous.”
Joy paints a similar picture. “He came knocking at my mom’s door talking about how sorry he was. At first I didn’t believe him, and then he told me he really wanted to be there for this baby because he wasn’t there for Jonah. And he would spend more time with Jonah when he would come and visit. I mean, we weren’t having sex at all.”
Joy had a hard pregnancy and spent months in bed. She says Damien was kind and attentive. “He came to see me when I was on bed rest almost every day. He’d watch movies with me. He even got my mom to start thinking he had changed. And I can’t say I fell back in love, but I started caring for him for real this time.”
That summer Joy moved out of her mother’s house and into an apartment in a public housing complex in Collinsville. In September Anna was born, and in November, with Damien just out after three weeks in the county jail (Joy thinks it was for driving on a suspended license; Damien can’t remember but says he was “in and out of jail a lot” during this period), Joy and Damien married in city hall.
“Me and Joy was always good friends,” Damien explains. “And even though I strayed into the streets and wasn’t there for Jonah and stuff like I was supposed to, she stuck by my side when I was in jail. We had a son and a daughter. I figured I needed something to slow me down and keep me out of the streets. And it was the right thing to do.” Joy was thrilled to give her children proper parents. “I called my mom and said, ‘Well, mom, at least I got my honor back.'”
But the marriage quickly started to fall apart. The housing authority told Joy that because of Damien’s criminal record (which at that point included convictions for possession of a stolen vehicle, unlawful possession of a firearm, and resisting a police officer), he couldn’t be added to the lease. She says that infuriated him. While caring for her two young children, Joy enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and began working various jobs at the university. “Joy was determined to finish college,” recalls Elizabeth. “She was a person who wanted to be something. She had good goals and good visions for her life. And all this intimidated Damien. Damien didn’t want her to go to school. He didn’t want her to have no friends coming over. Because he wasn’t doing anything, so all that made him feel bad about himself.”
Damien was having trouble holding down a job (“I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s because of my record,” he says), and according to Joy he was becoming increasingly temperamental and violent. “The whole abuse started about him not being able to live there, and he was accusing me of cheating,” Joy says. “At first he started doing this thing where he wanted to choke me, then it got to the point where if I would pick him up from work and I was 15 minutes late he’d push me in the bathtub and look up me to see if I had any semen.”
“That’s not true,” Damien responds. “In our relationship Joy was the jealous one.”
As Damien became more abusive, Joy says, she began to think of the abuse as divine punishment for her sins–a notion that she says Damien reinforced. “Every time he would do something to me he wanted to go to church, like he wanted to feel closer to God. He brainwashed me, literally, into feeling like some of the stuff he did was part of God’s will. It was like he brainwashed me more than my church community. I just got it all in my head that this is all my fault, because I sinned against God.”
Between March of 1998 and June of 1999 Damien was arrested four more times. These arrests resulted in two guilty pleas to felony domestic battery, one to misdemeanor domestic battery, and another to felony aggravated battery of a peace officer–a police officer had been maced in a scuffle that resulted when police found that Damien had broken into Joy’s home and was sitting in her kitchen alone with the lights off. It took three cops to subdue him.
Rothert recalls that Damien was in and out of court so often during this period that one day he sauntered into the courtroom in custody and said to him with a grin, “Hello, Tony. I just came back to see you again.”
In September of 1998 police and a caseworker from the Department of Children and Family Services responded to reports of a commotion at Joy’s home in Collinsville. One of the cops who showed up would write in his report that although Joy denied anyone was there, he heard a noise and discovered Damien “hiding behind some clothes in a closet.”
The police arrested Damien on suspicion of domestic battery, and Joy gave a statement that would come back to haunt her. She said she’d brought Damien over on Sunday to see the kids and he’d refused to leave. Two days later, “he kept me up until about 2:00 in the morning arguing,” the police report has her saying. “I finally started punching him telling him to go. I wanted to call the police but he disconnected the phone. I finally fell asleep. I woke up Tuesday morning at about 6:50 a.m. I got the kids ready and was thinking about sneaking out. I changed my mind. I thought about pouring hot grease on him or maceing him because I have become sick of the way he has been treating. I decided not to because I did not want to go to jail….He woke up and grabbed my arm when I walked by the bed….He twisted my arm and pushed me to the couch….I said, ‘What am I a hostage?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re a hostage.’ I punched him in the groin and he fell down to the floor. I got up to try to leave again and he hit my leg with a brush.”
The investigating DCFS caseworker wrote a bleak report about this incident. It noted that Joy had denied to the police who came to her door that there was any problem, and only a day later “was already discounting the events of the weekend and saying that she knows her husband truly loves her and she him…
“This relationship appears to be based on intimidation and a lack of trust,” the report went on. “Mother is working hard juggling school and single parenting. She does not recognize herself as an abused woman. She is committed to a husband who appears volatile without some good therapeutic intervention.”
The caseworker concluded that “there is reason to believe that these children are at risk of physical injury by their father,” and that “[Joy’s] behavior does not indicate that she will protect the children and stay away from her husband.”
Damien pleaded guilty to domestic battery in March 1999 and received probation.
A pattern had been set. Damien would be arrested, sit in jail until his court date, strike a deal with the state that involved no further jail time, and plead guilty. Records indicate that he’d rarely comply with the terms of probation, but when the state filed petitions to revoke it they’d be continued by the court and eventually dropped. Joy, the accuser, was always a reluctant witness–“She never cooperated with our office,” says Haine. Damien maintains that his guilty pleas shouldn’t be interpreted as an admission that he actually abused Joy. “The only reason I took probation on most of the incidents is that I didn’t want to sit up in the county jail. I ended up pleading to things I didn’t do.”
Damien acknowledges that he and Joy had a “pretty violent” relationship, but he says “it was a bad relationship on both sides….She would hit me, and at the time I wasn’t man enough to walk away, so I do recall hitting her back.”
“They should have left each other alone a long time ago,” says Keshia. “You put him out, you call the police on him, and then you go pick him up from jail? I don’t think so.”
Debra Thomas, Damien’s mother, reports that family members urged Joy and Damien to stay away from each other but neither would listen. “We would tell Damien, ‘She’s got these order of protections on you, stay away from her.’ Damien would say, ‘No, I love her, she’s my wife.’ The times Damien stayed away from her, Joy would even come looking for Damien. I told Joy, ‘Joy, you keep going and getting these order of protections, I will call the police myself to make sure you all stay away from each other.’ She told me to mind my business.”
Joy’s not the victim here, Damien’s mother insists. “Was Joy battered by Damien? No. Damien wasn’t up to her expectations, that’s it.”
In June of 1999 Damien was back in court, this time facing a felony charge of aggravated domestic battery. Joy would testify that Damien came after her on the stairs, and when she started kicking him, grabbed her leg, causing her to fall backward. She was hospitalized overnight for a lacerated scalp and given the phone number of a crisis center. Both Damien and Keshia, who happened to be at Joy’s apartment that night, would testify at Joy’s trial that the fall wasn’t Damien’s fault. Elizabeth Young remembers differently. “Keshia called me in the middle of the night,” she says, “and told me that Damien had killed Joy. She said Damien had snatched the phone out of the wall, and she was at a neighbor’s house, and I told her to call the police.”
A few weeks later, while Damien was in jail awaiting his court date, Joy filed for divorce. A month later it was granted without contest, and DCFS made it clear to Joy that any further contact with Damien would put her custody of the children in jeopardy.
She left her apartment in Collinsville, moved to a house in Edwardsville, and threw herself into life at SIUE. While working toward a degree in management and information systems, she acted in plays on campus and even began recording an R & B record (she had always loved to sing and by now was well versed in “worldly” music), all the while caring for her two children and working in the school’s computer lab. She also began dating other people.
Damien spent much of the summer in jail but eventually pleaded guilty. He was sentenced once again to felony probation, which meant a court-ordered aggressive-offender program and a suspended 360-day sentence. Joy received an order of protection; Damien was told that for the next two years he couldn’t come near her. Any single violation of his probation–that meant missing an aggressive-offender class, showing up late for a meeting with his probation officer, or having any contact with Joy–was supposed to send him straight to prison to begin serving his sentence.
“I think I got out in August,” Damien remembers. “By September we were living back together.” He says the decision to reconnect was “mutual.”
Joy says that’s not true. She says that she was happy to be free of Damien and doing other things with her life, and that when he found out her new telephone number and began calling her, she notified Damien’s probation officer. The parole officer filed a series of notices (four in all) with the state’s attorney’s office citing Damien for violation of probation. In turn, the state’s attorney petitioned the Madison County circuit court to revoke probation. Had this petition been heard, it’s likely that Damien wouldn’t have been free to visit Joy Brown’s home on the night of February 20. But the petition was continued eight times in the next eight months. No one, not the state’s attorney’s office or Damien’s probation officer or even Damien himself, can explain why.
Lorry Eller, a coworker of Joy’s at SIUE, says that the day Damien got out of jail he called the office, and Joy hid for two hours in Eller’s car until Eller was off work and could drive her home. Turquoise Lucas, a classmate and close friend of Joy’s, says Joy told her that Damien was possessive and violent. “He constantly called from his mother’s house, threatening her and hanging up,” Lucas says. “She said he used to sneak up in the house. One night she asked me to come and stay over because he had called and threatened her. She would always be watching her back like he was around.”
But Joy says that this time, like so many times before, Damien eventually wore her down. “Damien kept calling,” says Joy, “talking about, ‘Please don’t hang up on me, please don’t hang up. I just want to see my kids. It’s not about us anymore, it’s about the kids. I realize that we’re not meant to be together, I realize that you’re never gonna forgive me for this. I hate myself for the head injury. I wanted to kill myself.’ He said, ‘If you want to, you can leave the order of protection’–so I felt safer. ‘You know I hate jail, I’m not gonna risk myself getting a whole year in jail.'”
And Joy decided that the 360-day sentence hanging over Damien’s head would keep her safe. In November of 1999 she began letting him see the children, first in neutral public places and eventually at her home. Elizabeth was frustrated by her daughter’s capitulation but felt she could understand it: “He was the type of man who was very emotional. He would cry, and it was easy to feel sorry for him, and she didn’t want to feel like she was depriving her children of their father because she took it so hard when her father died.” Says Joy, “I never wanted it on my head that my kids would grow up and say, ‘I never knew my daddy because of you.'”
By February, Joy says, Damien was paying fairly regular visits to her house to see the children, though she’d never leave them with him unsupervised for more than a couple of hours. Joy had musical aspirations. She was cutting an R & B demo, and on the evening of February 20 she needed to go out to have some pictures taken for the cover. She says Damien asked if he could baby-sit the kids and she told him no. “I didn’t trust him with the kids for that long.”
Jonah was ill that night and stayed with Joy’s mother. Joy dropped Anna off at a friend’s house, picked her up after the photo shoot, and got home around 7:30. There are two sharply divergent accounts of what followed. Damien Brown testified at Joy’s trial that he showed up at her invitation, and that they were spending a quiet evening with Anna when Joy noticed some hickeys on Damien’s neck. Then they started “getting into it.” But they made up, and Joy “begged” him to have sex with her. Afterward the argument resumed. Their voices woke Anna, who came downstairs. Damien picked Anna up and put her on his chest; they watched some videos and fell asleep in that position. When Damien awakened, Anna was gone, the sheets and pillows had been stripped from the bed, and Joy was standing over him with a pot of hot oil. She poured the oil on him, and said, “Ain’t no one gonna want you now.”
Joy told a very different story. She said she’d just taken out some chicken wings to fry for dinner and put some oil on the stove top to cook them in when she heard noises in the basement. Damien suddenly appeared, ripped the phone out of the wall, and forced her to the dining room floor. “He starts asking me,” Joy testified, “was I fucking anybody else? was I fucking anybody else?” She said Damien began to assault her sexually but was interrupted by Anna coming down from her room. He stopped, took the child back to bed, and returned to the kitchen, where Joy said he forced her to the floor and raped her. When he was done he went into Joy’s bedroom and climbed into bed. Joy got an idea. She went into the kitchen, where the stove had been heating the oil the whole time, carried the skillet into the bedroom, and held it over Damien. “I said, ‘Get the fuck out of my house.'” Joy testified that Damien smirked and reached for the skillet; some of the oil spilled on Joy’s hand, burning her and causing her to drop the skillet. The oil splashed onto Damien’s head, face, and body. He chased her into the dining room as she stabbed at the buttons on her cordless phone and screamed that she was dialing 911. He grabbed some clothing from the floor and ran out the back door.
What’s indisputably true about that night is that simply by being in her house, Damien violated the terms of both his probation and the order of protection Joy had obtained against him. Terrified that DCFS would take the children if the agency discovered Damien had been seeing them, Joy threw the clothing he’d left behind into Cougar Lake on the SIUE campus. Then she denied to the police that Damien had been in her home. “They [DCFS] were like, ‘If you ever violate the OP or ever have him around your kids again, we’ll make sure you’ll lose your kids.'”
In a letter to Governor Ryan, Elizabeth said that Joy had called her that night asking what to do. “I, her mother, advised her wrongly and told her not to say anything…for I too was afraid that the children would be in jeopardy.”
Joy did call the police, but not to tell them what happened. She asked them to check the house for “a prowler.” The responding officer testified at the trial that Joy told him she’d been cooking when she thought she heard noises in the basement. She “seemed frantic.” He noticed that she had ice on her hand, and she explained that she’d burned herself at the stove. The officer noted in his report that she appeared frightened. Joy now says that she called the police because she was afraid that Damien would return and try to kill her. Because she didn’t know how he’d entered the house the first time, she wanted to make sure there was no window he could come through.
Damien ran from Joy’s house to a neighbor’s. A woman friend drove him to a hospital, where he spent six days in intensive care. Damien told the hospital staff that he’d spilled hot oil on himself while cooking. But Damien’s friend called Keshia from the hospital and Keshia called the police.
The next morning, Detective Scott Evers went to Joy’s house. When she answered the door he told her he was there to investigate an incident in which Damien had been burned with hot oil. Joy said Damien hadn’t been there and refused to let him in. Evers returned later that day with a search warrant and found the sheets stuffed in the washing machine and splashes of oil clearly visible around the bed. The smells of bleach and oil hung in the air. Joy decided she’d better tell Evers her story.
When she was done, Evers encouraged her to go to the hospital and be examined for signs of rape. She did this, and she continued to cooperate with the police in the days that followed. Three days after the incident, one of the officers called Joy and asked her to come down to the station to answer some questions. She brought along the underwear she’d been wearing that night, intending to drop it off; she believed she was on her way to assist the police investigating Damien. But as soon as she got to the station she was placed under arrest. She became hysterical, screaming and swearing and trying to escape.
A videotape of Joy’s explosion was entered into evidence by the state after a long argument with Joy’s attorney, David Fahrenkamp, and he says it hurt her case enormously. So did the statement she’d given in September of 1998, the one where she said she’d thought about pouring hot grease on Damien. Her examination a day after the incident hadn’t found physical evidence of rape.
Worst of all for her case were her repeated denials about violating DCFS’s orders and seeing Damien. She hadn’t even come clean with her lawyer. “I had never had a lawyer before,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell Fahrenkamp, because I figured no matter what I said he’d use it in court, and whether I won or lost the case I’d lose my kids. I didn’t think a lawyer would hold on to information that could help him win the case, even if it jeopardized my kids.”
Certainly Fahrenkamp would have told the court about Joy seeing Damien, to prevent the disaster sure to follow if the prosecution brought it up first. Cross-examined by Assistant State’s Attorney Kyle Napp, Joy adamantly denied any contact with Damien after she obtained the order of protection; she insisted he’d never been to her house in Edwardsville. Then the state called witness after witness to testify that they’d seen Damien shoveling the snow there, mowing the lawn, loading the kids into the car.
Despite circumstantial evidence that supported Joy’s account–the burn on her hand, the fact that Damien had broken in before, a doctor’s testimony that at the time she suffered from an infection that would have made intercourse painful and her consent to it unlikely–there was no evidentiary silver bullet proving either her story or Damien’s to be true. The case came down to whom the jurors believed. They weren’t out long. They believed Damien.
Sixteen months went by between Joy’s arrest and her trial in June of 2001. During this time she became involved with another man–someone with no criminal record. She was pregnant at the time of the trial, and before she entered prison delivered a boy. The father now has custody of the child. Four months after Joy was arrested, her lawyer received a letter from an assistant state’s attorney offering Joy a deal: she’d plead guilty to a reduced charge and serve two years’ probation, and then her felony conviction would be reduced to a misdemeanor. There was one further incentive: “Additionally, should your client plead guilty, I fully intend to proceed with charges against Damien Brown, for Violation of Order of Protection–Felony, based on his being at your client’s residence on February 20, 2000.”
Joy said no. “Had I burned him on purpose, I would gladly have taken the state’s offer of probation,” Joy explains in a letter addressed to the governor. “But he did break into my house, batter and rape me, and refuse to leave my home.”
She says that during the months leading up to the trial, Damien called her constantly to beg forgiveness and say he had no choice but to cooperate with the state. “They’re telling me either I testify against you, or I go to prison,” Joy says he pleaded. “One of us has to go.” Damien denies there was a deal, but he admits that he had an interest in seeing Joy convicted. “If she got off,” he says, “they would have had me brought up on charges.”
The state’s attorney’s office also denies any deal with Damien, but Rothert doesn’t buy it. “It was fairly standard,” he says, “that if someone had charges pending, and they were going to testify for the state, that the favorable resolution of their charges would be postponed until the state made sure they held up their end.” While Joy awaited trial, the petition to revoke Damien’s probation, which had already been continued eight times, was continued seven times more. The state finally dropped it on the day that Joy was sentenced.
It’s not uncommon for victims of domestic abuse to injure or kill their abusers, and more often than not, the women who do so are prosecuted for the violence they inflict. Contrary to the public perception of these women as benefiting from a “battered women’s syndrome” defense (a defense that exists more in the minds of television writers than in actual courtrooms), the overwhelming majority of battered women who commit violence plead guilty to the charges against them or are convicted. “It’s big news when an acquittal comes in,” says Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, “because it happens so rarely.”
In the early 1990s groups around the country began petitioning for executive clemency for battered women in prison. They argued that the legal system had failed to protect these women and then failed to take into adequate account the psychological effects of abuse and the women’s very real fear of being killed. In the ten years since Margaret Byrne started the Illinois Clemency Project, she and DePaul University law professor Mary Becker and an ever-changing group of law students have prepared nearly 75 clemency petitions. Twelve have been granted, a remarkable figure considering that in Illinois only 1 percent of all clemency petitions are successful.
Each year the clemency project receives names of possible candidates from appellate defenders, private lawyers, and inmates, evaluating them on the basis of several criteria. To qualify for the project’s assistance, a woman must be incarcerated for a crime committed against her abuser, there must be a verifiable pattern of abuse, and the abuse must not have been adequately considered at trial. (This year the clemency project filed its first petition on behalf of a woman who hadn’t been convicted of a crime against her batterer. Kathy Cecil, also of Madison County, was convicted of first-degree murder for failing to stop her abusive boyfriend from murdering her two-year-old son in 1993.)
Byrne heard about Joy from Dan Kirwan, head of the state’s public appellate defenders, and decided she was a perfect candidate. In a 200-page petition submitted to Governor Ryan in July, the clemency project argued that evidence of the abuse that Joy suffered at Damien’s hands was inadequately presented to the jury. Had the jury known the full extent of Damien’s abuse, the petition argues, Joy wouldn’t have been convicted.
The petition offered a long list of witnesses who could have testified to Damien’s violent streak and Joy’s fear of him but weren’t called at trial. Letters from Turquoise Lucas and Lorry Eller, neither of whom testified, were included. Terrence Michel, a half-sister of Joy’s who did not testify, wrote that Joy called her in tears the night of the incident to say that Damien had broken in and raped her and that she’d accidentally spilled grease on him. Rudolph Wilson, assistant provost for cultural and social diversity at SIUE and a former teacher of Joy’s, offered a letter that describes Joy as a “remarkable person” who “feared for her own life.” There was even a copy of a letter that Damien’s mother sent Joy. “Believe me, I am very sorry for everything that has happened,” Debra Thomas wrote. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about you. I often think that if I would not have minded my own business like you asked me, you would not be in this situation.”
Margaret Byrne thinks the fact that so many of the petitioners come from a single county might not be a coincidence. “There can be a culture in the state’s attorney’s office and in the police departments that can result in systemic injustices,” she says, “and I think that may be what we see here.” Rothert, a Madison County state’s attorney from 1996 to 1999, concurs. “In the whole legal community here, there’s still an old-boys-club type of thing,” he says.
Madison County’s state’s attorney for 16 years, Bill Haine just ran unopposed as a Democrat for the state senate. He’s incensed that anyone would question the integrity of the office he’s leaving. “We believe that such comments demean the administration of justice,” wrote Haine in a response to Joy’s petition, “and they demean those many, many women who have suffered true abuse and terror at the hands of wrongdoers.”
Haine grants that there are battered women who shouldn’t be prosecuted for striking back against their abusers, and he’s quick to point out three such women his own office decided not to go after. “But Joy Brown is not a battered woman,” he says. “We were used. We believed her.”
Haine says the only thing that got Damien into trouble was Joy’s allegations against him. “He told the truth at every stage,” says Haine, who finds it significant that Damien “hasn’t been in any trouble since [Joy’s] trial, by the way.” Haine goes on, “He’s a guy who likes to party, I suppose, but he doesn’t show a pattern of abuse to anyone. And he obviously cares for his children. Matter of fact, he obviously cared for her.”
Someone who’s been in much closer contact with Damien than Haine ever was holds a distinctly different view. “I had never experienced someone who lied so much,” says Chris Gushleff, who was Damien’s probation officer. “He would just blatantly lie to your face.”
To discredit Joy, Haine included with his letter to the prisoner review board some photographs of Joy and a short description of herself that she’d posted on the Web site BlackPlanet.com. Joy expressed her desire to find a man who is caring, “isn’t satisfied with working at McDonald’s,” and “is ambitious, likes to have fun, enjoys my company, and wants to know what kind of a person I am, not just my body.” She wrote, “I admit I am a very sexual person but sex isn’t everything and it is certainly not the first thing.”
This is the real Joy, says Haine. “The petition discussed Joy’s sheltered life and very strict religious upbringing,” he told the prisoner review board. “It states that Joy is very naive and innocent. It also states that she was repeatedly raped by Damien over the span of the relationship and that she is suffering emotionally as a result of the rapes. This was not used at trial, but the police found an entry by Joy Brown in an internet dating service. She enrolled in the dating service…approximately five months after she threw hot grease on Damien. She posted very provocative pictures of herself and mentions in the biography what a sexual person she is….Is this what you would expect from the woman described in the petition as someone struggling with the psychological impact of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of Damien Brown?”
Within a few days of reading Haine’s letter, Joy had written a 37-page response. She asserted, “First, [BlackPlanet.com] is not a dating service but more or less a chat and information site about black America. Many SIUE students use it as well as other college students around the world….The statements I made on the web site regarding the type of person I would be interested in chatting with are the total opposite of Damien Brown proving I didn’t want to be bothered with anyone like him. It is what you would expect from a woman like me who has been liberated from a life of seclusion and an abusive relationship. I do yearn to have a good and normal relationship. I just don’t want Damien or anyone like him.”
Haine’s letter to the review board received a lot of attention in the downstate press and prompted Margaret Byrne to write an angry reply. She described Haine’s letter as evincing “an acute lack of respect for and understanding of survivors of sexual assault. Surprise, Mr. Haine: a survivor of sexual assault is entitled to work toward achieving a happy life that includes sex as part of a healthy, and, in this case, Christian, relationship.”
But Byrne’s reply was overshadowed by the sworn affidavit, eight pages in length, submitted by Rothert. He declared that the state’s characterization of Joy and Damien’s relationship was dead wrong. “There is no question in my mind,” he wrote, “that Joy Brown is a victim of domestic violence and that the perpetrator of that violence was Damien Brown.” Rothert said Damien himself had said as much. “On more than one occasion, Damien candidly admitted to me that he frequently physically abused Joy without physical provocation.”
It wasn’t until Rothert left the state’s attorney’s office for a legal services clinic where he worked on domestic violence cases that he had any extended contact with Joy. He wrote that he was “thrilled” to see Joy’s name on an intake form filing for divorce. “Damien was so clearly able to manipulate [Joy] into believing he had changed that I harbored serious and genuine concern that he would one day kill her.” Joy, he went on, had expressed the same fear.
Like Byrne’s letter, Rothert’s affidavit is highly critical of what he calls the “profound lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence” expressed by Haine. Rothert argues that the very behavior that Haine cites as evidence that Joy was not abused–her refusal to cooperate with the state in prosecuting Damien, her minimizing the abuse in conversations with coworkers, even her appearances in public with Damien and the kids–was, in fact, entirely consistent with abuse.
“Based upon my experience,” Rothert wrote, “…most actual victims of domestic violence are, as a part of the cycle of violence, willing to offer forgiveness in exchange for a promise of ‘changing.'”
He took particular issue with Haine’s assertion that Joy manipulated the system. Rothert replied that “in my opinion and experience, neither the police officers in Madison County nor his assistance [sic] are as unintelligent and gullible as Mr. Haine now suggests….I reject the notion that I was fooled by Joy’s cunning plot to harm Damien and, apparently, by Damien’s repeated false admissions to me.” Rothert argued that “not even Mr. Haine really believes what he says,” pointing out that Haine’s office has made no effort to nullify Damien’s old convictions.
Rothert concluded that the system failed Joy. “Damien Brown should not have been offered opportunity after opportunity to change his behavior when it was plainly evident he had no interest in doing so. Had he been prosecuted aggressively he would be in prison, and Joy would be starting a new life–free of violence.”
The prisoner review board, which has already sent its confidential recommendation to the governor, takes the input of victims very seriously when making its recommendations. In the case of two other clemency petitions from Madison County, Haine submitted impassioned letters from family members of the victims urging the governor to deny them. No such letters appeared in Haine’s response to Joy’s petition.
Damien isn’t actively supporting Joy’s bid for clemency, but he doesn’t necessarily oppose it either. “I really don’t care if Joy gets out or not,” says Damien. “I would love her out as far as the kids’ sake.” Joy’s children by Damien–Jonah, 6, and Anna, 5–live with Joy’s sister in Georgia. Damien made a gesture of trying to get custody of the kids, but he failed to show up for any of the required meetings with a DCFS caseworker.
Joy remains hopeful about clemency, but she continues to pursue other avenues toward an early release. She is working on an appeal with her appellate defender while exploring possible grounds for postconviction motions. During her first year at Lincoln she’s written nearly a dozen letters to the editors of various downstate papers and multiple letters to the governor. She cites case law like a third-year law student.
Joy has collected a list of comments that George Ryan has made about the legal system while discussing his much vaunted moratorium on the death penalty. Ryan has called the system “fraught with error,” complained that “the odds of justice being done were as arbitrary as the flip of a coin,” and insisted that America’s “justice system should be the glowing example for the pursuit of truth and justice.” Joy thinks that, of all people, the man who speaks such words should recognize the spot she’s in.
“He knows,” she says, her voice trembling, “there are people in prison who shouldn’t be here.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Hayes, Belleville News-Democrat.