By Jose Medina and Samara Yarnes
NEW YORK, NY – After years of waiting for someone to pick up his case to prove his innocence and exonerate him, Andre Brown’s prayers have finally been answered by the dynamic legal team of Oscar Michelen and Jeffrey Deskovic.
Both attorneys have worked extensively to gather evidence for Andre’s innocence, successfully achieving a motion for an evidentiary hearing, and advocating to have the hearing immediately as the pandemic continues to put incarcerated people at risk.
Just last year, Bronx Supreme Court Judge David Lewis granted a motion to have an evidentiary hearing. However, it came at that time COVID became a nationwide threat and effectively shut down the courts, forcing Andre Brown to wait for his anticipated hearing.
Despite all recent efforts to apply public pressure to the DA’s office to move forward with a virtual hearing, the DA did not budge and has left Brown to patiently wait.
GROWING UP IN THE BRONX
Born in the Bronx, Brown grew up with four biological siblings and his two cousins. This hectic house was mirrored in the surrounding streets of his neighborhood. Gun battles and drugs were common in the Bronx, leading to a dangerous childhood.
Andre witnessed the tough on crime mentality of the 90s firsthand. From intimidation by police officers to false accusations of trespassing on his property, Andre grew up apprehensive about the law and the environment he lived in.
A FRESH START
Eventually, the dangers of the outside world were brought into Andre’s personal life. He began selling crack cocaine as a way to help provide for himself and his family.
This risky lifestyle caught up with him in 1998. While coming home from White Castle, Andre passed through one of the many drug locations in the Bronx. He was shot in the leg, despite having no substances on him.
This event signified a turning point in Andre’s life, pushing him out of the drug business and toward college. Andre began taking classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, with hopes of someday working in business.
However, these dreams were dashed with the beginning of 1999, when Andre was devastatingly implicated in a shooting of two teenage boys.
THE INITIAL ARREST
In the evening of Jan. 15, 1999, two teenage boys—O’Neill Virgo and Shawn Nicholson—were shot by a masked gunman in Bronx, New York. After Virgo had been seriously injured, Nicholson ran away trying to get away from the gunman.
As Nicholson was being chased, the gunman had removed his mask. Stephanie Telfer was stuck in traffic when she witnessed Nicholson being pursued by the now unmasked gunman. The gunman then shot Nicholson in the back, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Initially when questioned Nicholson told the police that he was unable to identify the gunman. However, later an anonymous tip was called into the police station explaining that Brown had been shot on the same corner a year earlier. The tip encouraged the police officers to look into Brown as a suspect for the shooting.
Coincidently, after the tip implicated Brown, Nicholson told the police that he was now able to identify the shooter as Brown. The police then began to post wanted fliers with Brown’s face on them around the neighborhood.
After seeing these fliers, Brown turned himself into the police willingly. Later that day Brown was set in a lineup where Telfer picked out Brown and identified him as the shooter.
A FAMILY’S SEARCH FOR A LAWYER
Having never gone through this process before, Andre’s family attempted to hire the best lawyer possible, hiring Ira Brown. Ira was a successful lawyer with numerous clients. However, due to his high workload, he was unable to attend all of Brown’s scheduling and hearings with the court.
The lack of attendance resulted in Brown and his family becoming wary of Ira’s dedication to his case.
Brown’s family then switched lawyers and hired Thomas Lee, a well-known lawyer for the mob families in New York, with mob lawyers at this time being well-known for having successful results.
A common strategy for these mob lawyers was to utilize witness intimidation by scaring or threatening the witnesses from testifying in court. Without any witness testifying, the case was typically thrown out.
This intimidation tactic was seen as a strategy for Telfer, as prior to the trial she received an envelope on top of her car windshield. Inside was two bullets and a letter calling her “a fat b***h” warning her not to testify. Telfer was undoubtedly shaken up and no longer wished to testify.
In a very uncommon decision, the court allowed for Telfer’s Grand Jury testimony to be read as evidence, rather than have Telfer come into the court and testify. This was a way to illustrate the court’s hard stance against witness intimidation.
Allowing for her testimony to be read as evidence was a dagger to Brown’s case. It prohibited Lee from cross-examining Telfer, a key action in Brown’s defense.
Cross-examining Telfer would have explained that Telfer only identified Brown after wanted posters with his face on them had been plastered all throughout the Bronx.
The jury would have been made aware that on the night of the shooting Telfer was in her car at a fair distance from the shooting, scared to death and feeling as if she were about to have a heart attack. Additionally, there was only one street light to illuminate the incident. Undoubtedly, Telfer’s cross-examination would have spurred doubt upon her identification of Brown.
With Telfer’s testimony being read as fact, Lee was unprepared with a defense. He neglected to provide any solid defense for Brown, despite there being multiple options. This lack of a defense clearly demonstrates Lee’s inadequacy when providing Brown’s legal defense.
Lee’s neglect for his clients and unconstitutional actions were not only seen during Brown’s case. In 2005 Lee was charged with one count of racketeering. He also became the first attorney to be admitted into the witness protection program, when he testified against the leaders of the Bonanno Crime Family. As a lawyer he had previously helped the Bonanno Crime Family by carrying messages in and out of prisons calling for executions of witnesses and others.
With no clear defense by Lee, it is no surprise that in March 2000, Brown was convicted of two counts of second-degree attempted murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Current reviews of Brown’s case will find that it had suffered from ineffective legal counseling and violations of his rights during the time of the trial.
Furthermore, newly-uncovered evidence that has yet to be heard overwhelmingly proves Brown’s innocence.
As he eagerly waits to present this evidence, he is accompanied by a community that both loves and supports him.
THE COMMUNITY BEHIND ANDRE
Although Brown stands by himself behind prison walls, he is far from alone.
Brown has been supported for the entirety of his case by his loving wife, Tameka. Tameka and Brown met initially as kids, attending the same church.
After Brown’s incarceration, Tameka reached out with a simple birthday card. The two reconnected and Tameka began her role as Brown’s “voice.”
Tameka reached out to countless attorneys, read dozens of transcripts, and even took pictures of the crime scene. Despite being unsure what to do, Tameka always continued trying her hardest to advocate for Brown.
Brown has been lucky to have such a strong supporter on the outside. This is often not the case, as Tameka explains that often “the law is not on your side. The process is extensive and you need someone [on the outside] to advocate for you.”
Eventually, Tameka’s work paid off, as she was the one who initially contacted Michelen.
“A burden was lifted” from Tameka when Michelen accepted the case. Tameka had been advocating desperately for years as a mother and wife, yearning to get her husband home.
Michelen not only was willing to work pro bono, but made Brown and Tameka active roles in his process, calling Tameka to simply get her opinion on decisions.
Working on Michelen’s team have been Jeffrey Deskovic and Sabine Jansen. These three along with private investigator Gerri Colcci have also made extensive progress within Brown’s case.
ANDRE’S INNOCENCE: A LEG SURGERY AND ALTERNATE SUSPECT
Michelen has gathered an overwhelming amount of evidence that proves Brown’s innocence in preparation for the evidentiary hearing.
Medical records show that Brown had received leg surgery six months prior to the shooting, making it impossible for Brown to chase down Nicholson. Unfortunately, at the time of the initial trial the jury never heard about Brown’s leg surgery, due to Lee’s lack of any form of a defense.
Michelen told The Vanguard that he recalled the time he tracked down the surgeon that performed Brown’s surgery, and asked him if it was physically possible for Brown to have chased down Nicholson on the day of the incident. The surgeon told Michelen, “No, I’m 70 years old I would’ve beat him by a lap.”
The surgeon told Michelen that Brown had surgery on the soleus muscle and that “someone who has surgery on the soleus muscle is not running for a good two years because it’s just not possible.”
Brown’s medical records were his strongest defense, however the surgeon was never contacted by Lee, despite the court granting Brown the opportunity to present an expert defense witness at the time.
Aside from gathering and researching Brown’s medical records, Michelen has two witnesses that have already been questioned under oath by the Bronx District Attorney Conviction Integrity Unit. The two witnesses point to an alternate suspect, similar in appearance to Brown, as being the actual shooter.
The first witness claims that he worked for the alternate suspect as a drug dealer. The witness has identified the alternate suspect as a drug dealer that went by the name of Bonkers and revealed that he had a turf war with Virgo, one of the teenage survivors of the incident.
Michelen added that Virgo and Bonkers sold marijuana and actively fought over street corners.
The first witness also disclosed that Bonkers and Virgo had been in a shootout a few days before the incident and that Bonkers insisted that he was going to “get” Virgo the next time he saw him.
The second witness asserts that he witnessed a man he identified as Bonkers chase down Nicholson.
Both of the witnesses’ claims establish a clear motive for the January 15 incident. The incident was not just about two teenage boys being shot at by a random gunman, it was about a couple of drug dealers having animosity toward each other.
Further evidence connected the two incidents when Michelen found a police ballistic report. The report found that the bullets from the first shooting matched the ones from the Jan. 15 incident, meaning that the same gun was used in both incidents.
Unfortunately, all of these facts were kept out of the jury’s knowledge.
Interestingly enough, according to a court transcript that Michelen obtained, the prosecutors at the time tried to use the earlier incident and the Jan. 15 incident as an M.O. for Brown. However, their M.O. argument was immediately refuted when Virgo said that Brown was not the shooter in the first incident.
The prosecutors asked the judge to scrap evidence for the M.O. argument and successfully argued that these were two unrelated incidents, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that proves it otherwise.
Michelen also points out that, despite Brown previously selling crack cocaine, he would have no connections with marijuana drug dealers like Virgo and Nicholson.
He states that “sure you might’ve run into him but there would be no beef between these two people, it’s like a donut shop being upset that a car dealer was next door, what difference does it make.”
As for why Bonkers was never identified as the actual shooter by both Virgo and Nicholson, Michelen believes that they wanted to take care of Bonkers themselves instead of letting the legal system take care of him.
Unfortunately, they used Brown to deceive the court into thinking that they got the actual suspect while they went off and took care of Bonkers themselves.
Bonkers was shot and killed a whole 10 months after the Jan. 15 incident, right before Brown’s trial began.
OBSERVED COVID INJUSTICES
Aside from his due process being violated, Brown told The Vanguard that he witnessed other injustices being perpetrated by the carceral system. He mentioned that these injustices were magnified by the COVID pandemic.
He revealed that the two most prominent injustices are the assault on incarcerated individuals and inadequate medical care services.
Brown wanted to make it clear that being incarcerated “is a living hell, an actual nightmare I want everybody to understand what prison is, it is a death sentence because although you might not have natural life or might not have a life sentence, every day you are walking in the shadows of death.”
He mentioned that once COVID spread, the nightmare became worse. He witnessed a lack of social distancing protocols, masks, medical care, and COVID testing in the facilities. Matters had to be taken into his own hands for his own safety.
Brown recalled that “we were making our own masks out of handkerchiefs, paper towels, stitching together clothing in order to protect ourselves.”
He lamented that, despite all the efforts made by individuals to protect themselves, “many others have passed away like my friend Benjamin Smalls.”
He paused in remembrance of his friend.
Brown continued by saying ”it has been horrendous because they have not taken the prison population seriously, they have only looked after the public at large.”
He brought up the fact that facilities have just started to provide COVID tests, proper healthcare, and giving masks—but only because it has been mandated by the state and pushed by outside groups on incarcerated people’s behalf.
Aside from the facility’s response to COVID stemming from both the state and public pressure he also pointed out that masks are coming in from outside organizations such as the Fortune Society, and if it were not for these organizations then masks would most likely not have been provided as much as they have been now.
He revealed his experience with the facility’s lack of medical care and proper attention to incarcerated people by recalling that “the other day I was having trouble breathing and I didn’t know where it was coming from and I headed down to Emergency Medical and there, normal is to give you a couple of aspirin and send me back to my cell.”
He pointed out that if it were not for both Oscar and his wife Tameka contacting the facility then he would have not been called up again to be given the proper medical attention that he needed.
Brown wants to bring attention to the fact that prisons do not care for incarcerated folks “because so many individuals are turned away they die at a higher rate because they are not receiving the adequate medical care that is afforded by the Constitution under the 8th Amendment inside of these places.”
He added that, instead of facilities honoring incarcerated people’s human rights, they just “give them the standard which is to write down that they did come down here and were seen and that’s it” and do not give them the proper attention they need in times of crisis.
Brown has not only been frustrated by the jail system’s apathetic treatment toward incarcerated people in the midst of the pandemic, but also by the assaults from staff.
He told The Vanguard that “the assault rate here is really high by staff and it is continuously minimized, nobody knows about it until there is a brutal injury such as a breakage of a limb or some type of damage to the eye socket, nose, or teeth which now has to be brought up to the outside attention everything is covered up.”
REFLECTIONS OF AN UNJUST SYSTEM
While being incarcerated, Brown has given a lot of thought to the changes the legal system desperately needs, especially in a time when the nation is currently reevaluating policing and the criminal justice system.
He wants people to address the systemic racism that is present in the legal system, noting that “Black and Brown children, I believe, are held at a higher standard than any other people in the world and what I mean by that is we get no due process, we just get arrested without our constitutionality being set in place.”
Brown added that Black and Brown children “are transformed by their impoverished situation whether they are walking home from school or they are going to a corner store or just heading to a friend’s house they are ambushed by a society of hate and that’s what I look forward to the most changing that system itself.”
In Brown’s case, his entire due process was mishandled by a legal system that failed to uphold his rights conscientiously.
Brown recalled, “I walked into the precinct with an attorney and at the time of this crime you know they knew I couldn’t commit the crime because I had an injury to my leg and they could care less about it.”
He added that “they also knew that I was a college student, which they could care less about.”
Emphasizing the unjust handling of his case, Brown stated that “had they done a proper investigation into this case itself it would have shown my innocence a long time ago instead of 22 years later.”
A CALL TO ADVOCACY: REACHING OUT TO HELP THOSE IN THE QUICKSAND
Brown has a strong desire to advocate for the wrongful conviction community. He shared that he’s met so many incarcerated people whose voices go unheard by law firms every day, stating that “individuals who have been writing attorneys, all to no avail.”
He knows how it feels to be put in a desperate situation and for no one to hear calls for help—he recalled that he wrote thousands of letters before Michelen and Deskovic took on his case.
He calls on law firms to give “more pro bono attention to those individuals who are incarcerated that are reaching out for people to take their case and take a better look at the facts.” He asked for “some merit to be given to these cases that are continuously turned away on a daily basis.”
Brown is grateful to Oscar and Jeffrey for taking the time to learn about his case and commit to getting exonerated, but he understands that “individuals like Oscar can’t take on over 5,000 individuals under his firm.”
However, he knows that “there are more firms out there who can help these individuals who are crying for help in deadly destitute areas of confinement that need to be welcomed back into society.”
He hopes that his story will be able to inspire others to mobilize and advocate for the wrongfully convicted.
Brown states that “more helping hands need to reach out into the quicksand because individuals like myself are breathing out of a straw and there’s only so much time left before that breathing apparatus will fade away and these individuals will die behind bars.”
Once he is free, Brown vows to be one of those helping hands.
BEYOND THE WALLS: ANDRE’S VOICE AND LIGHT
Brown’s eloquence with words conveys the complexity of his situation. Brown yearns to be a part of the outside world. To move beyond the cell walls and become an advocate for those like himself, and those that lack a voice on the outside.
Once free, Brown plans on pursuing a career that would help the wrongfully convicted community. He wants to intern under Michelen, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer.
Along with being an advocate, Brown is looking forward to spending time with his loving family. He wants to be present for his son AJ, stating, “I want to see him do what he loves to do and sit on the sideline cheering him on.”
For anyone looking to support Brown, his change.org petition is: (https://www.change.org/p/nyc-government-the-people-free-andre-brown).
Financial support, go to jpay.com Here, you can use New York State and his inmate number of 00A3351 to send Brown funds.
Brown’s address is:
Eastern Correctional Facility
Andre Brown 00A3351
30 Institution Rd
P.O. Box 338
Napanoch, NY 12458-0338
Samara Yarnes is a senior at the University of California, Davis, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Psychology and Sociology. She is originally from La Crescenta, California.
Jose graduated from UC Davis with a BA in Political Science and has interned for the California State Legislature. He is from Rocklin, CA.
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