How Courts Handled Evidence in a Black Man’s Trial

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

Vern Braswell, a Black defendant, was convicted of the murder of his wife, Sheila. During Braswell’s appeal , prosecutor Doug Carriker and Braswell’s attorney Taylor Eskridge went through the prosecutor’s files. They stumbled upon a sealed envelope of withheld evidence, purported to be documents, in the file.

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

On April 20, 2011, Judge Skahan was told that while going through the Braswell file, Eskridge and Carriker 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 had not been turned over at trial, especially since “there shouldn’t be anything to hide” because Braswell had been convicted, was now informing Judge Skahan that he was reluctant to turn over evidence pertaining to Braswell’s conviction because evidence and sealed documents were marked by Weirich, the original prosecutor. Judge Skahan, after expressing shock, acquiesced to the documents and evidence not being turned over immediately and not being protected. Eskridge informed the judge that she wanted to know what was in the envelope and also that all of Braswell’s evidence requests make sense and were valid. However, Carriker renewed his trepidation about giving Braswell the documents and evidence. Was it evidence of Braswell’s innocence that made Carriker “not comfortable”? Why did Carriker become “concerned” after he viewed the contents of the Braswell file?

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

On July 1, 2011, the judge made the snide remark 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 DA Amy Weirich because he was still hesitant 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.

On October 11, 2013, the issues of the sealed envelope of withheld evidence and documents was privately discussed with the judge again, particularly the fact that the prosecutor was reluctant to reveal the documents and evidence in the sealed envelope because Braswell’s case was handled by head DA Amy Weirich. The judge again seemed to appear compliant or complicit when she’s reminded that the evidence and documents were withheld by DA Weirich. 

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

When Judge Skahan denied Braswell relief, she claimed that a group of documents that were found later in a file folder were actually the contents of the sealed envelope that Eskridge and Carriker had discovered — the sealed envelope containing withheld evidence and documents. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals said there was no evidence of Judge Skahan’s claims about the contents of the envelope.

Then prosecutors even said that the sealed envelope of withheld evidence and documents never existed. (This is how the Shelby County DA’s office treats Black defendants.)

The Court of Criminal Appeals, after commenting on the prosecutors’ refusal to allow Braswell’s attorneys to access the files for over a year and blatant lies about the location of files, finally said, “The olfactory perception of the missing sealed manila envelope is not pleasant.” BUT because Braswell’s lawyers never saw the evidence inside the envelope, there was no way of proving that there was anything inside the envelope that would have been helpful to Braswell during his trial, therefore Braswell was out of luck.

Because the Shelby County DA’s office successfully kept a Black defendant from getting his hands on the envelope, they were able to keep the Court of Criminal Appeals from giving the Black defendant any relief.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals blamed the Black defendant’s lawyer for not doing a better job of catching the Shelby County DA’s Office cheating.

For a second time (in one case), a Black defendant was cheated out of an opportunity to prove on appeal that his conviction was unjust.

And THIS is how the Shelby County DA’s office treats white defendants when they have envelopes of withheld evidence and documents. This video is from the case of white defendant Noura Jackson. 

The information inside of the envelope referenced in the video led to the white defendant’s conviction being thrown out and reversed. Noura Jackson’s evidence of innocence was inside the envelope.

Braswell, the Black defendant, may never know the evidence of innocence that was inside of his envelope. He didn’t get the white privilege experience.

Additional References

These are media reports covering the vanishing sealed envelope of withheld evidence in the Braswell case.

New York Times article mentioned Braswell’s case when the same prosecutor hides evidence of innocence in another case.

Harvard Law discusses Braswell’s case and rates his prosecutor as one of the worst in America for violating defendants’ rights.

To download copies of transcripts of the courtroom conversations, go to:

To read the transcript of the “Various Appearances” conversations, go to: 

To read the transcript of the “April 20, 2011 Announcement” conversations, go to: 

This is Part 3 in a 6-part series that will be published over the next two weeks.

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