A White Judge’s Attitude Toward a Black Man in Court

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Murder Trial Evidence That Suspiciously Disappeared 15 Years Ago, Resurfaced Anonymously Following George Floyd Event

A White judge chastised and scoffed at a Black defendant who uncovered suspicious actions by prosecutors and the medical examiner’s office during his trial and conviction for murder. The judge never showed any disdain for overtly suspicious acts.

Read the first article in the six-part series about Vern Braswell’s murder conviction and racial disparities in the criminal justice system here.

This article presents a chronology of a Black defendant fighting a white judge and prosecutors as he tried to obtain evidence to prove his wrongful conviction. It also focuses on the judge’s attitude toward him and the obstacles that prosecutors created to hinder him.

Vern Braswell was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Sheila, in 2004 in Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee. Sheila was discovered deceased in their Jacuzzi bathtub after complaining about aches, pains, and not feeling well. A medical examiner ruled Sheila’s death a result of manual strangulation. Braswell testified and a corroborating witness confirmed that they frequently engaged in erotic asphyxiation during intimacy.

The following accounts are based on exchanges between Braswell, the defendant, and the judge, prosecutors, and attorneys, all of whom were white. The conversations are documented in the “Various Appearances” court transcript from the Braswell case, which you can read here.

On May 10, 2010, during one of his appeals, Braswell alerted Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan that he had been having trouble for over a year obtaining evidence to prove his wrongful conviction. Despite his frustration, Braswell was cordial and respectful in addressing the judge, maintaining his decorum. Braswell also refused to throw his current lawyer, Taylor Eskridge, under the bus or say anything that would make her look bad in open court. Braswell didn’t want to come across as just another angry convicted murder complaining about his lawyer.

On June 15, 2010, when Braswell wasn’t present in the courtroom, the judge made the sarcastic remark to Braswell’s attorney “I hate to disappoint you” regarding Braswell’s absence. This remark insinuated that Braswell had become a nuisance, presumably due to his constant requests for evidence to prove his wrongful conviction. On July 27, 2010, the judge made a dismissive comment regarding Braswell‘s perception of the complicated issues in his case and the need for the evidence that Braswell was trying to secure. The judge snapped at Braswell’s lawyer, “Well, he may think they [the issues] are [complicated], but. . .” implying that they were not important unless the judge deemed them so.  

On March 25, 2011, a date was set to present evidence of a wrongful conviction for the appeal. Braswell reminded the judge that he was concerned about his ability to procure the evidence he needed to prove his wrongful conviction; if he wasn’t able, the evidence presentation would be perfunctory. After hearing Braswell’s argument, Judge Skahan agreed and informed his attorney, Eskridge, that the evidence should be available to Braswell to prove his claims.

As soon as the judge voiced her agreement that Braswell was, in fact, entitled to evidence to prove his wrongful conviction, things began to go awry, as illustrated by multiple attempts by prosecutors to block Braswell from obtaining the evidence.

LATER THAT DAY WHEN BRASWELL WAS NOT PRESENT IN COURT … At this point Eskridge knew she was obligated to secure the evidence that Judge Skahan had already declared that Braswell was entitled to receive. Assuming that Eskridge believed she was in a no-win situation, she returned to Judge Skahan to remind her that for the last two years, prosecutor Bryan Davis has refused to let her see the Braswell evidence contained in the prosecution’s file and that her associate attorney, Larry Copeland, had noted he had also been refused access to the Braswell file. Eskridge also informed Judge Skahan that Davis blatantly lied to her, saying she could not see the Braswell file because it was in California when the file was actually in storage across the street from the courthouse. This confirmed Braswell’s pleas to the judge about his inability to procure evidence that could prove his wrongful conviction claim.

The conversation and comments by prosecutor Doug Carriker during the private discussion also revealed that Braswell should get access to thousands of pages of evidence that were not turned over at trial and that “There shouldn’t be anything to hide at this point, since he’s [Braswell] already been convicted. Braswell’s attorney, Eskridge, made an appointment to receive copies of the contents of the Braswell file from Carriker.

During the appointment, Carriker and Eskridge stumbled upon a sealed envelope of withheld evidence, purported to be documents, in the Braswell file.

The following accounts are based on exchanges between Braswell, Judge Skahan, Carriker, and Eskridge as documented in the “April 20, 2011 Announcement” court transcript available here.

On April 20, 2011, during another private court conversation with the judge, Eskridge accused Braswell of issuing a subpoena to the county medical examiner‘s office with her name on it. However, the subpoena actually revealed that personnel records for the prosecution‘s expert witness from trial had vanished. (Braswell later denied putting the attorney’s name on the subpoena). Eskridge told the judge that the county didn’t “have any records that she [the medical examiner who did the autopsy and testified during Braswell’s trial] ever worked here.” The attorney tells the judge “everything is weird about this case” and that Braswell‘s suspicions (about the questionable past and practices of the medical examiner in his case and his wrongful conviction) seemed to be confirmed.

Judge Skahan was also told that while going through the Braswell file, Eskridge and Carriker, the prosecutor, discovered a sealed envelope bearing the initials of head district attorney Amy Weirich. Carriker, who initially said that Braswell should receive and have access to thousands of pages of evidence that were not turned over at trial, informed the judge that he was reluctant to turn over evidence and sealed documents pertaining to Braswell’s conviction because they were marked by Weirich. The judge expressed shock about sealed evidence in the Braswell file being held by the prosecution. Eskridge informed the judge that she wanted to know what was in the envelope and that all of Braswell’s evidence requests made sense and were valid requests. However, Carriker renewed his fears about giving Braswell the documents and evidence because Weirich prosecuted the case and appeared to have sealed the envelope. The judge acquiesced to Carriker’s request, ordering that these sealed documents be protected and not be turned over immediately.

THIS WAS WHERE THINGS GOT EVEN STRANGER … Judge Skahan did not tell Braswell that his suspicions were well placed and that he was right. The judge did not order an inquiry into why there was no record that the medical examiner ever worked at the medical examiner’s office. The judge did not inform Braswell that she was going to protect the integrity of the documents and evidence that was withheld in a sealed envelope even though she appeared to know and understand why documents and evidence were sealed and arranged in that fashion in the prosecutor’s possession.

Instead, the judge attacked Braswell for the allegations of issuing a subpoena in Eskridge’s name. Braswell agreed that he issued the subpoena because he constantly complained about not getting evidence but denied putting the attorney’s name on the subpoena. The judge seemed disproportionately angry after Braswell uncovered suspicious activity. She snapped at Braswell, “you take offense at anything” after he shared that he was appalled when his attorney (who was supposed to defend him) accused him of forging her name on the subpoena. Braswell also reminded the judge that he had consistently tried to keep her apprised of his difficulties in obtaining evidence to prove his wrongful conviction, but it seemed like it was to no benefit. The judge told Braswell to “just drop it” when he tried to explain that he would not have put the attorney‘s name and wrong information on a subpoena. Braswell again tried to remind the judge that he had been begging for evidence to prove his wrongful conviction for two years. 

After Braswell told the judge he felt “hurt and shocked” that he was falsely accused of forging the attorney name, the judge blasted Braswell with: 

“…you are a little sensitive okay. And I’m used to dealing with attorneys and maybe I hurt their feelings, but I don’t really care, I am used to dealing with people as a judge, okay. I am the only ego in here I care about. That is basically the way it is, okay. 

So deal with it…”

Keeping in mind that Braswell had no idea that his efforts were beginning to produce fruits and that his suspicions were being confirmed, after Braswell again reminded the judge that prosecutors had been promising evidence for over a year, the judge again snapped at Braswell with, “I’m not happy about it [your case] being on my docket either, believe me …” 

The following excerpts are taken from conversations contained in the “Various Appearances” court transcript here

On July 1, 2011, the judge remarked to a lawyer regarding Braswell, “He is a little demanding,” presumably in response to Braswell’s repeated requests for evidence. 

The prosecutor reminded the judge that he still had to meet with head district attorney Amy Weirich because he was still reluctant to show Braswell’s attorneys the documents and evidence in the sealed envelope. Judge Skahan did nothing to protect the integrity of what is obviously withheld evidence.

At the conclusion of the court discussion, Braswell appeared saddened by the fact that the next court date was going to be five months away. The judge, with zero compassion, falsely blamed Braswell for the delay by again snapping at him with the following, “. . .don’t look at me like that. You and your attorneys are the reason for the delay.” Braswell continued to try to be courteous and complimentary, to the point that the judge accused Braswell of brown-nosing. 

Just a reminder, this was a Black defendant convicted of murder begging for evidence from a white judge, who appeared to be okay with a white prosecutor withholding it. 

Of note … the sealed envelope of withheld evidence and documents vanished before Braswell’s lawyers could see what was inside of it.

It should also come as no surprise that at the conclusion of this segment of Braswell’s appeal, the judge denied Vern Braswell any relief in his request for a new trial based on prosecutorial misconduct.

To download copies of transcripts of the courtroom conversations, go to: https://www.afmfm.org/transcripts/

To read the transcript of the “Various Appearances” conversations, go to: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-9CZToGHoe7OyFCf0tdWRKfjol2u_IG6/view?usp=drivesdk 

To read the transcript of the “April 20, 2011 Announcement” conversations, go to: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-CJMFJugci5I_435Ul_7xgoBWMOo_awH/view?usp=drivesdk 

To read media reports detailing the sealed envelope of withheld evidence and documents, which vanished before Braswell’s lawyers could view them, can be reviewed by going to: https://afmfm.org/braswell-case-links/ 

This is Part 2 in a 6-part series that will be published over the next two weeks.

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