By Josh Shaffer
Faye Brown was a quiet, stoic woman who rose each morning in a Raleigh prison, pulled on a pair of dress slacks and walked out the gates to catch a city bus — her routine for years.
At age 67, she had earned enough trust to work each day as a teacher and hair stylist at Sherill’s school of cosmetology, carrying a pair of scissors though she was serving a life sentence for murder and bank robbery.
At the end of each day, she caught the bus back to prison, where the younger inmates considered her a grandmother — an older, wiser prisoner who loved peppermint candy and held a vain hope she would be free one day.
She always admitted walking into a Martin County bank in 1975, carrying a loaded pistol and stuffing money into her purse. But she always resented the murder charge. As the robbers fled, Brown’s accomplice Joseph Seaborn hid in the back seat of their getaway car, and when a state trooper pulled them over, he fired a sawed-off shotgun through the window, killing Trooper Tom Davis.
“She always said she didn’t want to die here,” said Pamela Humphrey, her friend at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. “She’d say ‘Pam, we ain’t going to die here.’ She never gave up hope.”
She came close in 2009, but was stopped by the North Carolina Supreme Court the next year. On May 8, however, Brown kept her promise, technically. She died in a Raleigh hospital from Covid-19 complications — the first casualty at the Raleigh prison, which has seen upward of 90 coronavirus cases, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
Twenty former inmates recently gathered outside the Southeast Raleigh prison decrying her death and protesting crowded conditions. Inside, Humphrey and others waved to them, making heart shapes with their hands.
“They told us her family was there,” Humphrey said. “I don’t know if we’re being told that to appease us.”
Brown grew up in Garysburg, a town of 932 sitting a few miles from Roanoke Rapids.
For a 2005 TV documentary, Women on Death Row, she told an interviewer that she came from a large family of modest means, and that she thrived in school, making valedictorian at her eighth-grade graduation.
Her attitude changed when her parents shifted her to a majority white school nearby, where she felt unwelcome and gave up studying. She found a bad crowd and drifted into drugs.
On the morning of the robbery, she told the documentary crew, she had been up all night taking LSD, and she fell asleep in the front seat after exiting the bank. At his trial, Seaborn explained that he had fired the only shot, saying it was accidental.
“I am truly sorry for your loss,” Brown said in the documentary. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Never meant to harm anyone, and I hope someday they will forgive me.”
Convicted of murder in 1976, she initially got sent to death row. That got commuted to life in prison, and Brown began a bitter stretch in Raleigh, continuing her drug use and flouting the rules.
It wasn’t until 1991, around the time of her mother’s death, that she began to change, according to a profile in the Worldwide Women’s Criminal Justice Network.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in prison, got certified to style hair and began teaching others at Sherill’s. She got two passes a month to visit her sister on weekends.
She steered the young inmates toward school programmes, told them not to cross the correctional officers and warned them on which prisoners to avoid if they wanted to keep from trouble, said Christy Wells, her friend and former bunk mate at NCCIW.
Then in 2009, after 33 years in prison, Brown got a windfall that nearly freed her altogether. She came so close to officially leaving that she made it out the gate and into the parking lot before being called back.
“It was that one time in your life when you feel like you’re finally getting ready to live your life again,” said Wells. “I’m sorry. I’m going to cry.”
In 2009, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favour of Bobby Bowden, a Fayetteville man convicted of murder in 1975. The justices held that the state was obligated to apply credits for good behaviour toward his sentence.
This ruling cleared the way for other prisoners convicted between 1974 and 1978 — including Faye Brown — when a life sentence meant 40 to 80 years.
Brown prepared for release, but Governor Beverly Perdue ordered a halt on releasing 20 inmates serving time for murder, rape and assault.
“Like most of my fellow North Carolinians,” she said at the time, “I believe life should mean life, and even if a life sentence is defined as 80 years, getting out after only 35 is simply unacceptable.”
The idea of freeing Brown, regardless of her sentence or behaviour, rankled many statewide. Willie Rogers, a retired highway patrol sergeant in Goldsboro, wrote a letter to the News & Observer reminding readers of the day he found Brown and her accomplices hiding in a soybean field with their weapons and stolen money.
“Trooper Davis did not get a second chance,” he wrote. “So why should Faye Brown get one?”
Emily Cowart, then an attorney with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, recalled Brown as soft-spoken and insightful, calm despite having so much on the line.
As they arrived in Wake County Superior Court, she was surprised to see the room fill up with spectators in black robes, all from Brown’s cosmetology school.
“We were expecting the courtroom to be packed with troopers,” Cowart said. “Instead, it was a bunch of hair stylists.”
Brown won her case in Superior Court on a Monday morning in December 2009, and by that Monday afternoon, the Court of Appeals ordered her to stay put.
“She didn’t show a lot of emotion,” Cowart recalled. “She was always kind and pretty reserved.” Then the Supreme Court shut the door for good in 2010, and Brown returned to her bunk at NCCIW.
“She took her clothes off and she put a prison dress on with a pair of thermals,” Wells remembered. “She put a hair wrap around her hair, crawled up in her bed, read a book and cried.”
Brown beat cancer twice while in prison, Humphrey said.
She recovered, but in her waning days, she showed signs of weakness. Her legs would give out.
Once the virus broke out across its prisons, the state granted early release to roughly 640 prisoners. As they protested earlier this month, Brown’s friends said they remain in contact with people inside, and they report no efforts at social distance with inmates sleeping a few feet apart.
Brown was hospitalised April 19, one day after testing positive for the virus. Friends at the prison said she did not return.
“Any death is deeply saddening, and we continue to work hard to deal with Covid-19 in our prisons,” Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons, said in a news release. “The safety and health of the staff and the offenders in our custody remain our top priority.”
Humphrey added a more personal eulogy. “She was a classy lady and a true friend in an atmosphere of friendlessness,” she said. “It seems that all the public wants to hear are the negatives. And yet they funnel thousands and thousands and possibly millions to educate us so we don’t make mistakes again, and when we take advantage of those we’re still condemned.”
As they protested, her friends on the outside wore T-shirts in solidarity, each with a tribute in cursive: “Faye Finally Free.” — The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)/TNS
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