Henry Brown by wILL WEBER

It was Henry Brown’s responsibility to read the morning newspaper loud enough for all 17 death-row inmates at Florida State Prison to hear – an audience that included famous names like Ted Bundy and John Spenkelink – from his 6-by-9 cell where he was locked 23 hours a day waiting to be executed.

But today, Brown, now 60 years old, is not only alive but a free man. He’s worked on campaigns for Gov. Rick Scott and given speeches about the effects of gentrification in his hometown of Miami.

Brown’s life is a story of perseverance and faith that reads like a Hollywood movie script.

The youngest of seven children, Brown’s family moved to a Miami neighborhood called Overtown, an area with a crime rate 162 percent higher than the national average, when he was 6 months old.

Growing up, Brown looked up to his oldest brother, who inspired him to be an entrepreneur by giving him candy bars from wholesale markets to sell individually at school for profit.

“I patterned my life after my brother,” Brown said. “I just wanted to be like him.”

The early money created a feeling of independence in Brown and as a 12-year-old he found his first job at a local gas station. Despite getting dubbed a grease monkey by classmates who saw the oil stains on his hands after work, Brown enjoyed his job and the money that came with it.

A smart, outspoken student in school, it was fitting that Brown had Malcom X’s biography with him the day he was pulled over and arrested.

Just 16 years old, prosecutors charged him and two other men with first-degree murder. Believing he wasn’t supposed to be locked up, Brown escaped from jail through a window using fastened sheets and hitchhiked to Mexico before being caught.

“I was under the impression when I escaped, how can they charge me with escape if I wasn’t guilty of the murder,” Brown said. “That was my young mind.”

Investigators alleged Brown, along with two others, killed Abraham Goldstone after stealing his car. After a hung jury in a first trial, a second jury recommended life imprisonment.

However, a trial judge instead sentenced Brown to death, claiming his age at the time to be the only mitigating circumstance but rejecting it because, he said, Brown was mature beyond his years.

On death row, Brown read anything he could get his hands on, including Western and Eastern philosophy, the origins of religion and Confucianism.

“After everything I learned in school, when I got on death row it seemed like I was dumb,” Brown said.

Throughout his stint on death row Brown adamantly maintained his innocence and when a 23-year-old lawyer called him saying she could get his sentence reduced, he listened.

The attorney argued that the judge erred in ignoring the jury’s recommendation of life. The Supreme Court of Florida agreed and in 1979 – after four years on death row – Brown’s sentence was commuted to life instead of death.

When Brown got to general population, his goal was to work in the law library, but he wasn’t allowed to because he hadn’t taken a required law course. Instead, staff put him in the periodical section, where he says he discovered true knowledge.

Brown met a group of inmates who sat at a roundtable each day arguing points of law, history and philosophy. Initially, they wouldn’t let Brown sit with them because he was too young, but eventually they made a deal – Brown could sit with them, but he wasn’t allowed to talk.

For the next nine months he sat in silence, listening to the men talk and argue. Finally, he explained that he had opinions on things and asked to talk.

The prisoners quizzed him, asking what he knew about the Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia. Brown knew a little bit, but that wasn’t enough.

Wait until you know a lot, they told him, then you can talk.

Another seven months passed before he was given an opportunity to speak. This time they let him talk, but insisted that he sit on his hands to keep himself from gesticulating. They also warned that if he used profanity during the day, he couldn’t talk at the table.

“They would say, ‘you’re remote controlled, you’re not self-controlled, you’re a reactionary not a revolutionary,’” Brown said. “They taught me how to organize [my thoughts] in a better way.”

These roundtable discussions changed the way Brown thought and understood the world. He picked up knowledge and learned to converse without letting his emotions captain his judgement, skills Brown never could have guessed would eventually benefit him in the free world.

Brown was released in 1993 after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

He walked out of the courtroom a free man for the first time in 40 years and hasn’t looked back since. Brown now works with non-profits, legislators and big players across the state on prison reform.

And he’s engaged to be married – to an attorney.

Despite the hardships, Brown keeps a positive spirit about him.

“Even though I probably backed away from God, God never backed away from me,” Brown said. “Now I’m able to talk to young people about my experience and what they’re going through in their lives and make them want to make a change.”

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