Vinson: Judge Brown still his own man

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Though I've mentioned his name in the past, I have chosen to use this week's column as a means by which to go into greater detail about Joseph "Joe" Brown, better known to many as Judge Joe Brown.

Judge Joe Brown is an American arbitration-based (civil cases) reality court show that premiered in September 1998. The first-run syndication series entered its 15th season in September 2012. Though there now are many such courtroom shows, Judge Joe Brown is the second longest running courtroom show in television history, second only to Judge Judy. Too, Judge Joe Brown is the first black male to preside over a television courtroom show.

However, what I most desire to share with you is the history behind how Joe Brown landed his TV gig, and how that same history crossed paths with my own research and writing.

Growing up poor in the rough-and-tough, southern portion of Los Angeles, California, commonly referred to as "South Central," Joe Brown promised his family he would make something out of his life.

Staying true to his promise, Joe performed a variety of manual labor jobs to finance his college education, earning his law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles/UCLA in 1973.

Brown's law career landed him in Memphis, TN, where, as a young litigator, he became the first black prosecutor in Memphis's history. After his stint as a prosecutor, he practiced in the private. In 1990, Brown was elected as a criminal court judge in Shelby County (Memphis).

In 1994, the case of James Earl Ray was placed under Brown's judicial domain. To bring everyone up to date, a short overview:

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis, TN, the evening of April 4, 1968. A .30.06 rifle was found near the murder scene and was labeled as the murder weapon. James Earl Ray admitted buying the rifle from a legal gun dealer in Birmingham, AL, but claimed he handed over the rifle to a man named "Raoul," on April 3, 1968, and never again saw the rifle. Under highly questionable circumstances, James Earl Ray entered a "guilty plea" in the MLK assassination, March 10, 1969, and received a 99-year sentence. Three days later, March 13, 1969, Ray recanted his guilty plea.

The FBI conducted a ballistics test on the alleged murder rifle in April 1968, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted a test in 1977. Both tests proved inconclusive.

Spring 1997, I met Jerry Ray, James Earl's younger brother, and thus began my interest in the MLK assassination and James Earl Ray's guilt/innocence thereof. March 25, 1998, at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility, a medical annex of the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, TN, I conducted a live, Q&A interview with James Earl Ray.

Citing grave inconsistencies with the ballistics aspect of the case, and much to the chagrin of Memphis prosecutors, Judge Joe allowed a third round of retesting on the alleged MLK murder rifle in May 1997, and, again, the results were inconclusive: Of the eighteen bullets fired through the rifle, twelve had land & groove markings dissimilar to the death slug, and testers couldn't say anything for certain regarding the other six.

Given these ballistics findings, Judge Joe was set to allow a fourth round of retesting, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals removed him from the case in spring 1998, alleging he had lost the ability to act as an "impartial" judge.

Judge Joe went national, appearing on a number of prime time media outlets (TV, radio, newspaper), and soundly argued that Memphis prosecutors and the state of Tennessee had him removed from the case, solely, because he was about to expose the truth.

Some keen-eyed television producers noted how Judge Joe Brown used a balanced mix of street smarts, academia, and independence in defending his handling of the James Earl Ray case.

And, folks, that is how the Judge Joe Brown show came to be.

I've met Judge Joe Brown in person several times, and I'll say this: He is his "own man."

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