Joyce Robbins wanted to know why her aunt wasn't coming to a big family barbecue.
Mamie Brown and her husband, Joseph Green Brown, who was on Florida's death row for 13 years before his convictions on rape and murder were overturned in 1986, had been fixtures at family functions since they'd moved to Charlotte, N.C., in 2007.
But lately, the Browns weren't showing up at birthdays, anniversaries or other gatherings. So Robbins called her, and Mamie confided that the couple was facing serious financial problems. Since his release from a Florida prison, Joseph had been making a living talking against the death penalty, based on his personal experience of coming within hours of being executed for a crime he didn't commit. But he hadn't been paying taxes on his speaking fees.
"She said, 'Money is just tight right now. We just don't go too many places anymore,'" Robbins said.
A week later, Mamie Brown, 71, was found dead in her Charlotte apartment and her husband was charged with first-degree murder. Joseph Brown, 62, has been held in the Mecklenburg County jail since his arrest Sept. 14 in a Charleston, S.C., motel room a day after the slaying.
Police haven't disclosed a motive in the death, or provided details on how Mamie was killed. But Joseph Brown was indicted Wednesday for murder and an arraignment is pending. The one-page indictment said Brown did "willfully ... kill and murder Mamie Caldwell Brown."
Documents uncovered in the wake of the crime give clues that Brown's private life may have been unraveling for years prior to his wife's death. Yet family members said they didn't know the couple was having financial problems, or that Mamie had filed domestic violence complaints against him in 2003 and 2005 when they lived in suburban Washington, D.C.
"She was so protective of him," said Mamie's cousin Sherry Williams. "She loved him so much. I wish she would have told us what she was going through. We would have helped her."
Joseph Brown was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1973 rape and murder of Earlene Treva Barksdale, the owner of a clothing store in Hillsborough County, Fla. He was scheduled for execution Oct. 17, 1983, but a federal judge ordered a stay 15 hours before he was to be put to death. His conviction was reversed in 1986 because of false testimony from a co-defendant, and prosecutors decided against retrying Brown. He was let out of prison on March 5, 1987.
After his release, Brown met Mamie, who had three children from a previous marriage and was working for the U.S. Labor Department in Washington.