Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alton Coleman & Debra Brown: Odyssey of Mayhem

Brown's Confession

With Coleman and Brown in custody, the problem fell to state and federal officials to untangle the slew of accusations against the couple and to decide which cases to prosecute.  It was clear from the outset that the most punitive states would have first shot at the pair. That meant capital crimes committed in Michigan and Wisconsin, which have no death penalty, would be tried last if at all.

We want him first, said Lake County DA Fred Foreman. Ive been in court with this man before and I want to bring him back.

Brown and Coleman were separated by police and Debra, easily the most wanted woman in the country, was advised of her constitutional rights. She immediately invoked her right to remain silent and asked to speak to an attorney.

In the Evanston police station, the FBI agent who administered the Miranda warning continued to ask Brown questions about her identity things like her name, age, birth date, and address, according to court documents. An Evanston detective questioned Brown as well, seeking clues to an attack in his jurisdiction for which the pair was suspected.

When the time came to transport Brown to the federal lockup, she spoke with agents on the trip to Chicago. Arriving at the federal building, she was once again advised of her rights and she once again refused to sign a waiver. She did, however, agree to talk to officers as long as she could stop when she wanted to.

Over the next two and a half hours, Brown discussed the crime spree in detail, in effect confessing to many of the crimes committed during the brief, but violent odyssey across the upper Midwest. When she finished, she once again asked to speak with an attorney. No further inquiry was made until after Brown spoke to a lawyer.

During trial, Browns attorney protested that her Fifth Amendment right the right against self-incrimination was violated because authorities continued to interrogate after she had asked for counsel. The trial court found that the Evanston detective did violate her rights and the evidence from his questioning was ruled inadmissible. However, the confession given to federal authorities in Chicago was used in the trial and with it conviction was easily obtained.

Brown was sentenced to die for the murder of Tamika Turks.

Later, Brown was sentenced to die for the Cincinnati murders, but she continued to be held on Indianas death row. Coleman was convicted of the same murders and also sentenced to die. In January 1991 the governor of Ohio commuted Browns death sentence, saying she was retarded and dominated by Coleman. She is now serving two life sentences in Ohio for her crimes there. However, Indiana is not finished with her.

It took almost seven years, but in August 1991 the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court had not erred by allowing the confession into evidence. The conviction and death sentence would stand. The appeals court found that despite her repeated attempts to speak to an attorney, the confession was separated by space, time and subject matter from her first request for counsel that it was proper. Brown willfully gave the confession, the court noted, after being advised of her rights.

Interestingly, it was Browns conversations with authorities while she was being transported to federal custody that created the loophole which could result in her execution. She asked questions like where am I going? and what am I charged with?

Criminal defense attorneys fumed at the courts decision, with one saying to the Indianapolis Star that the Fifth Amendment was being squeezed to death.

If you ask anything, you create an opening the state can drive a truck through, said Daniel L. Toomey, who argued Browns case before the Court of Appeals.

Today, Debra Brown, the only woman on Indianas Death Row, is serving out her sentences in Ohio. Whether or not she will ever see the executioner in the Hoosier State remains up in the air.

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