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After the crime

Published: Sunday, July 12 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

Alfred K. Brown left his Topsfield home at age 15, walking silently past his family for the last time.

His mother lay dead in the kitchen near a pot of half-cooked potatoes; his sister's body was several feet away, dragged in from the next room. Wilfred Brown lay in the garage breezeway, his overcoat ripped by bullets from the rifle he had given his son for Christmas.The refrigerator door yielded the only insight.

"I want to die," Alfred Brown had scribbled in red ink.

Twenty years later, behind the concrete walls of MCI-Norfolk, Alfred Brown seems very much alive, his thin frame only slightly bulkier, his brown eyes only slightly more nearsighted than they were that January afternoon in 1978.

But death, in its way, has encroached on Alfred Brown. At age 35, after the majority of his life in prison, he has no chance of release. His bachelor's degree, earned with an A average, seems irrelevant; so do his daily calisthenics. Even Brown calls his life "sort of meaningless."

Prosecutors say - and most of the public would agree - that this is Brown's deserved fate. And as in the case of the 15-year-old Oregon boy accused last week of gunning down his parents, few disagreed two decades ago that something needed to be done with Alfred Brown.

Yet his current existence - after 20 years with no counseling and no greater insight into the murders - raises questions about the logic of a system that gave up trying to find out why Brown killed, whether he could change and how a community might prevent similar brutality.

No second chance

Brown was convicted in 1979, a decade before the explosion of gun violence among juveniles, two decades before the recent spate of schoolyard shootings involving kids as young as 11. If his violent episode foretold the skyrocketing juvenile murder rate in years to come, his sentencing foretold the solution: He was transferred to adult court and later sentenced to three concurrent life terms.

Today, from an 8-by-10-foot cell inside a Massachusetts state prison, Brown's story offers a glimpse into the fates awaiting thousands of teenagers imprisoned for murder nationwide every year.

Although homicide rates have dropped across the country, 41 states have passed laws since 1992 making it easier to impose hefty sentences on the hundreds of teenagers arrested annually for murder. The Massachusetts version, signed in 1996, makes Brown's situation virtually the norm: Juvenile transfer hearings have been eliminated, and anyone over the age of 13 convicted of first-degree murder now faces mandatory life in prison without parole.

At the same time, funding cuts earlier this decade have left prisoners - particularly "hopeless cases" such as Brown - in an endless void. The English classes he once excelled in hardly exist; in 20 years, he says, he has gotten just two or three months of psychological counseling. These days he passes the time playing pinochle and reading old John Grisham books.

"It's a very complicated question, because I would have had a certain amount of confidence that Alfred could have done well," said Curry College Professor Dante Germanotta, who taught Brown in several prison sociology courses and considered him one of his brightest students. "There once was a day when prisoners really turned themselves around. Now, (prisons) call themselves `corrections,' but they don't act that way."

The prosecutor's view

Former prosecutor Phil Moran has a very different memory of Alfred Brown, one he said leaves no question he could never be rehabilitated.

Moran, an Essex assistant district attorney at the time of the murders, prosecuted the transfer hearing that shifted Brown from juvenile to adult court and began the push for a life sentence.

A heinous act

"It was a terrible crime," Moran said. "It would be a terrible crime by today's standards, but 20 years ago it was almost unheard of."

In fact, 20 years later, Moran recalls the teenager's nonchalance as vividly as the chalk outlines on the Browns' kitchen floor.

"I said to him, `This is strictly off the record, but why'd you do it?' And he said, `I was pissed,' " Moran said. "He also told me there was no difference shooting a tree."

The conversation took place in the basement detention center of Salem District Court, shortly before Brown was arraigned on Jan. 28, 1978. Less than 24 hours had passed since the attack.

The quiet house on Mansion Drive represented a recent lifestyle change for the Browns. In the seven preceding years, they had lived in a bustling section of Tokyo, where Wilfred Brown worked as an insurance agent and where his wife, the daughter of a prominent Japanese military official, had been raised. When he lost his job in 1977, six months before the killings, Brown, 46, took a new position in Massachusetts; the move was jarring for the entire family, including Alfred.

Both daughters, Dorina and Elizabeth, had gone away to college against their father's orders. Dorina, who was 20 when her brother killed her, tried to commit suicide her freshman year and immediately returned home. Elizabeth, then 21, was in school in Hawaii at the time of the murders. Their father didn't like her being away from home, and his anger wasn't out of character: He was a violently domineering man, in his son's view.

"It was tense all the time," he said. "I was having a lot of tension with them. We used to argue a lot over my school grades."

A youngster with a temper

Brown, who described himself as a quiet child with a fiery temper, blames an argument over his report card for causing him to "snap" that particular Friday. But as he recited the sequence of the killings, nervously bouncing one leg, the rote description seemed to belie an explanation still buried in his memory.

It was a cold January afternoon. Returning home from school in the snow, Brown went straight upstairs to his room, too nervous to tell his mother he had failed geometry. He pulled his Christmas present, a rifle, from the closet and began cleaning it. When he went downstairs for a snack about 4 p.m., he left the gun on his bed.

Yoshiko Brown, 50, was cooking dinner.

"She asked me, `How was the end of the semester?' " he recalled. "I wasn't even going to say anything to her. When I did, she got really mad. She told me, `I'm going to let your father handle this when he comes home.' "

Brown returned to his room in a rabid fit. When he spotted the gun, he said, he "decided to shoot her." Grabbing ammunition from his closet, he loaded the .22 and came crashing back down the stairs. His mother, her 5-foot-3-inch frame still bent over the stove, "never even saw the gun or anything."

"I remember shooting her, but it didn't seem real. I was surprised when the gun went off."

Dorina, who had been listening to the radio in an adjoining room, started screaming. He chased her through the living room, then through the rest of the house, until his gunshots sent her flying through a screen porch.

Brown returned to his room and began packing. Shortly, he heard the grind of the garage door. Creeping down into the carport, he lowered the gun behind the other car until his father got out of the car.

"He said, `No!' to me when I raised the gun. I shot him and he ran at me. I shot him again. When I shot him the second time, he went through the door." During his entire recitation of the events of that day, Brown's voice remained a flat monotone.

He reached inside his father's pocket, lifting both wallet and keys. Then he drove away in his father's car, racing out of town until he caught the attention of an off-duty police officer, who pursued him, sending him crashing into a tree. At the police station, detectives tried calling the Brown residence in search of the teenager's parents. He finally told them not to bother. Shortly, the bodies were found.

John Doherty, a former Essex County prosecutor, joined the swarm of investigators at the Brown house that night. He remembers the "blood all over the house." He also recalls finding books about assassins in Brown's room, which he interpreted as proof the murders had been planned. All of which, he said, was evidence that society's right to safety outweighed the teenager's right to a second chance.

"This was an extremely lethal kid, a time bomb walking around," he said. "No one in his right mind would ever let this kid get out."

Justice is served

A jury delivered a guilty verdict on Feb. 20, 1979, after nearly five hours of deliberations. At least one juror cried as it was read aloud in court; later, several said they could have convicted him of a lesser charge, guilty by reason of insanity, thereby sparing him a life sentence, Doherty said. But the prosecution's case was too strong.

The Brown case, he concluded, "is an example of the system working."

Keeping hope alive

Brown admits there was only ever a slight chance he would go free. Particularly in light of his own inability to truly explain what prompted the murders, he understands why he is in prison for life.

"I'm not going to say I shouldn't be here," he said.

Nonetheless, after his appeal was denied in 1982, he continued, like most inmates, to pray for a judicial miracle. His success in English and sociology courses at MCI-Walpole bolstered his hopes; when he graduated from Curry in 1989 with a 3.8 GPA, Brown "thought it would be helpful" in requesting a commutation.

Brown's optimism was not totally unfounded, according to two of his professors. Allan Hunter, who taught Brown literature, described him as an "extremely unusual student" whose papers were researched in astounding detail, often conveying more insight than those from undergraduates not imprisoned.

"He was a very, very dedicated student," Hunter said. "He was put in jail at about 15. Now he's approaching 40. This is not the same person that went away. My thought is, gosh, my tax dollars are going to support someone who really deserves a second chance."

A `meaningless' life

These days, Brown would settle for a preoccupation behind the prison walls. After holding several jobs, from a typesetter to forklift operator, Brown said he has been taken off the employment list because he is considered an escape risk. (Department of Corrections officials do not comment on inmates' records inside prison. Doherty said he was aware that Brown had violated some rules, but Brown denies it.)

There is little diversion for Brown, who passes the time lifting weights, playing cards and reading in his single cell. He has not had a visitor in years, apart from a reporter; his sister stopped coming in 1983. Calling his life "meaningless," he said he occasionally wonders why the prison system has given up, preferring to let him languish.

"From an economic point of view, it's not very smart," he said, referring to the estimated $1 million cost of imprisoning an inmate for life.

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