New York State may have exonerated Roy Brown of a murder charge, but now his post-prison life will never feel the same.
Photos and Story By Nate Hopper
Roy Brown sits on a loveseat in his sitting room. The space is decorated like a mix between a church, a tropical greenhouse, and a therapist’s office. A frame and a print of a painting rest in one corner. In another, a small lion statue prowls, and along a wall stands the bust of an angel. Plates with pictures of tigers, toucans, and giraffes are set out on the coffee table, between the loveseat and a fainting couch. Outside of the home, in Chittenango, N.Y., a red Lamborghini resides in his three-car garage; three sports cars, including a Bentley, sit in his driveway, beside his white Lincoln stretch limo on the front lawn; and a mounted deer head lies in the corner of the stone garden that hugs the front of the house. Roy says he got everything on discount: he got the furniture at local flea markets and he bought the cars in Florida.
But the real reason he could buy everything is because five years ago New York State repaid him. On March 5, 2007, Roy was freed from prison after spending 15 years incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. Then in December 2008, the state awarded him $2.6 million. But while the settlement afforded him sports cars and a room just for sitting, it may not have been enough to heal all his wounds or ease all his new pain. In the five years since his release, Roy has received a successful liver transplant to cure him of cirrhosis, earned more money as a fulltime landlord than he ever did with his pre-prison wages, and faced new accusations from the police, as well as his family. The repayment may help remedy the third of his life he lost to an unjust conviction. It also may not.
Roy limped out of the courtroom in the Cayuga County Court House with his arms wrapped around his two lawyers’ shoulders. After he mumbled a few answers to reporters, the two supported him down a set of stairs, coaxing him, “You’re almost there.” They guided him around the metal detector, into the lobby and the arms of his crying younger stepsister, Billie Jo Kuzcynski. She grasped his neck, and other family members joined the hug. His cirrhosis, in its final stages, had emaciated him. His eyes sank into the shadows cast by his brow. His cropped hair was a dim gray; his taut skin, a pallid sulfur tone. Amidst the celebration, he looked incapable of mustering a smile.
About 15 years earlier, a Cayuga County jury convicted Roy of the murder of Sabina Kulakowski, a vivacious, pixie-like county social worker. Firemen found her dead in a field near the smoldering farmhouse where she lived. She was naked, stabbed, and bitten, with many of her injuries seemingly inflicted after her death. The murder occurred days after Roy finished an eight-month sentence for drunkenly threatening to blow off another county social worker’s head with a shotgun if he didn’t allow Roy visitations with his daughter. Roy had never heard of Kulakowski or the town she lived in. He didn’t own a car. And he had too few teeth to create the bite marks on her body—the crux of the prosecution’s case. But a slew of shady testimonies;
evidence that dammed another man, but stayed hidden by the police; and apparent spite from the presiding judge led to his conviction and a 25-to-life sentence.
In prison, Roy attempted to hang himself from a pipe in his cell, but the wet mopstring snapped under his weight. He more than doubled the infirmary doctors’ prediction of how long he’d survive his cirrhosis. His older brother Tim remembers a doctor telling him during a visit with Roy, “Listen, if he goes back into the infirmary again, you can’t visit. You can claim the body if he dies. That’s it.” But Roy survived. He studied in the prison’s law library and completed the bulk of the investigation and legal work that eventually freed him a decade after his lawyers told him there was no more he could do. He became the 196th person in the United States exonerated because of DNA evidence. The count comes from the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that supplied lawyers to Roy and many others who were wrongly convicted. Its count, while imperfect, is widely regarded as the most comprehensive. And particularly because of the advent of DNA evidence and advocacy organizations like the Innocence Project, the number of exonerated citizens returning to free society is increasing. Since Roy’s full exoneration a little more than five years ago, that number has grown to 289.
A free man, Roy walked out of the courthouse into a cloudy, cold January day with flurries falling around him. He was going home. But like many people who go to prison, he found that most of the places and people he returned to barely resembled those he’d left. The trees were gone. They’d been replaced with cityscape. Everyone plucked cell phones—which inmates called “magic phones”—from their pockets. The old bars had been drained. Roy would go looking for his friends, but they’d left or died from a car accident, cancer, or a drug overdose. Roy’s prison dreams of picking up his kids for the weekends had become dated. One of his daughters had three children. Another had six. In place of those dreams came paranoid nightmares—symptomatic of the PTSD-like effects that studies have shown the imprisoned suffer. In them, the police would arrest Roy for no reason, or he’d be in prison and just accept it—he wouldn’t question why.
Roy was also still dying. Since exonerated people do not automatically qualify for Medicaid—and few states offer it to them—the Innocence Project worked to ensure Roy’s limited insurance covered the care he needed to keep living. Some days he could barely see. He became breathless from standing up. If his gait quickened too much, his knees buckled. He lived at his brother Don’s house in Mexico, N.Y., so Don could look after Roy. But one day, around a week after his release, Roy looked at the snow outside and decided to go buy a newspaper from the corner store. On the walk back, he collapsed in the snow, unconscious. He woke up in the hospital, to Don asking him what he’d been thinking. “You can’t just go walking down the street in your condition,” Don said. Roy replied, “Yes I can, because I’m free. It doesn’t matter if I can make it to the store and back. What matters is I can get up and go.”
And on Mother’s Day, 2007, about two months after his release, Roy received the call that doctors told him not to expect: they had a liver transplant for him. As he woke from the anesthesia, he remembers looking at his hands, no longer yellow, and telling himself, “That’s the color of life.”
Up until his surgery, his siblings piled around bed-ridden Roy and flipped through pictures, reminiscing and feeling the closest they had in decades. Aside from moving around to Air Force bases with their mother and stepfather (Billie Jo’s biological father), the Brown children mostly lived apart. He and his older brothers moved out; their other brother Robert, and Billie Jo also moved around, but to different places.
Roy enjoys telling the tales of his travels and recounts them with the candor of someone either raised honest and with blunt disregard for the law, or a liar still competing with his siblings for notoriety. It’s impossible to tell exactly how much is true, but each story provides insight into how he perceives himself. And the stories his siblings offer of Roy before and after prison depict and illustrate the life he left, and the people he returned to live with.
Roy paints himself as a vagabond, riding the ’70s wave of hitchhiking across the country. At age 13, he hitched back and forth to Michigan to live under the supervision of his older brother Tim, who had left home when he was 15; their eldest brother, Butch, left at 16. Roy says he was out “raising hell,” and along the way he picked up several charges and jail stays. One night, a prostitute friend paid him to accompany her around Syracuse, and a car pulled up and asked her what she was doing. Understanding that the man was propositioning her for paid sex, Roy called himself her brother and promptly left. But it was a sting, and before Roy got back to his car, the policemen put him in handcuffs. A couple years later, when a friend who dealt pot convinced Roy to join him on a visit to his stripper girlfriend at her job (under the condition that Roy would get to hang out with some of her coworkers), police pulled them over and discovered guns and scales in the trunk. Because his friend had a baby on the way, Roy says, he took the charges. Roy also picked up a DWI and spent several days in a California jail for hurling gravel at bouncers who kicked him out of a club.
Roy says that because of his travels, he and Billie Jo never grew too close. But Billie Jo says there was another reason—a reason that Roy renounces. She claims that, at an Air Force base in Hawaii, 10-year-old Roy pinned down 6-year-old her for the first time. With one hand, she says, he grabbed her wrists and held them over her head, and with the other, he covered her mouth. She says he raped her and continued raping her for years. She started making sure she and he were never alone together, and kept avoiding him through the murder conviction. “I would tell myself, even though he didn’t kill the woman, he did deserve some jail time for what he did to me,” she says. “But the longer he sat there, I thought, Does he really deserve to die in prison? And my guilt started to take over. I never believed my brother was guilty.” And while Tim and Robert, who haven’t spoken with Roy in two-and-a-half years, say Billie Jo told them about the molestation decades ago, Roy says he heard of it for the first time after his release. Billie Jo says she never pressed charges because she was too young to realize the police could protect her. She says matter-of-factly, “There’s no way for me to prove a word of this.”
When I asked Roy about what Billie Jo said, he denounced her as crying wolf, saying instead that during his incarceration she came to him and accused Tim of raping her. Roy didn’t believe it. Neither did Billie Jo when I asked her about it. “Tim was my favorite brother!” she said. “I would never had said that about him.” An hour after I asked Billie Jo about Roy’s counter-accusation, Tim called me. He slurred that he was going to drive down to Roy (Tim lives about three hours north) and kill him. “Fucking nigger ever talks about me raping my sister, I’ll cut his throat with a spoon,” he said. “Next interview, we do from prison.” I called Billie Jo to tell her what Tim said. She told me she’d calm him down and not to worry: Tim’s only vehicle couldn’t make it to Syracuse and his threats were mostly hollow. “This is how my brothers are,” she said. “This is how Roy ended up in jail,” when he threatened to kill the social worker.
But this all happened after a time when Billie Jo and Roy grew as close as they’d ever been. During Roy’s imprisonment, their ailing mother begged Billie Jo to speak with him. She agreed, and Roy called her. She papered Upstate New York with flyers Roy made to petition his conviction. After she started getting involved with his case in 1994, she enrolled in community college and planned to get a law degree so she could help free Roy. After two years, she matriculated to Syracuse University, where in 2000 she received a bachelor’s in sociology. Roy said she never finished; but her two degrees sit in a box in her attic. She visited Roy, bringing him food packages from their mother. And before their mother died in the February of 2002, she made Billie Jo promise to do everything she could to get Roy exonerated. The two grew close for the first time. “His values did change—he developed some,” Billie Jo says, with a chuckle.
Roy planned to live with Billie Jo upon release and wrote her into his will as the trustee of his estate. He planned to receive a settlement from the state to compensate him for the injustice. But he didn’t expect to live to see the money, so he trusted her to split the settlement among his children and the grandchildren he’d never met.
But then Roy lived. And about four days into his recovery, he received a visit from his first but estranged love, Raina. The two met as 13-year-olds outside a bar their parents frequented. Roy was sitting on the hood of his father’s car, smoking a cigarette. Across the parking lot he spotted a “good-looking chick.” He went inside, had a Pepsi and some chips, then returned to his perch. He caught her eye, too. His father came out of the bar with his stepmother, along with his uncle Larry and Larry’s girlfriend, Donna. His stepmother started saying to him, “That girl is your cousin,” but his father cut her off. “That girl ain’t your god damn cousin,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with that girl.” Raina was Donna’s daughter from a previous relationship. The two began dating and Roy fell in love for the first time. At 14, when Roy says he had his own apartment and job earning $170 a week, he told her they could grow old together. But Raina recoiled at the idea of growing up so fast and they eventually broke up and grew out of touch. When she came to see him at the hospital, they kissed and she held him like miles, failed marriages, and years had never separated them. They fell back in love. But Billie Jo says she and Robert worried about Raina’s intentions: she showed up at the hospital just days after news outlets reported Roy would live to see the settlement money. Tim discards the accusation though, “It’s so easy for family to blame somebody else for what’s going on with their brother.”
Whether Raina had ulterior intentions or not, on Dec. 8, 2008, Roy saw the money. (Later, the two married.) He received a $2.6 million settlement from New York State to compensate him for the time he lost. Video of the occasion shows the judge, who’d replaced the retired judge who presided over the murder conviction, apologizing to Roy, saying, “It’s a lot of money, and you’re certainly entitled to it. No question about that. It was a terrible tragedy for you.” Later, Roy says, nodding his head and barely smiling, “I’m doing pretty good. I’ll be doing a lot better as soon as the check clears.” And while Roy says he didn’t let money change him, it did hurt his relationships with some of those close to him. He says he paid his siblings $25,000 each, but that he gave Billie Jo an additional $100,000 as a loan so she could start a bottle-return business. Billie Jo says it was a gift for her devotion through prison—matched only by their brother Don, who Billie Jo says also received more money. Roy expected her to pay him back and says the discrepancy is the core of why they haven’t spoken in over two years. She says they fell out of touch because of a heroin-fueled drug binge, which he denies. (There’s a strange story the two share. Roy says Billie Jo sent cops to his house in search of drugs. Billie Jo says the Drug Enforcement Administration came to her and Don for help in a case against Roy, but maintains they refused. The DEA would not comment.)
But despite all the bickering it brought, the settlement was a sort of luxury that, according to Innocence Project statistics, 40 percent of exonerated people do not receive. The median annual amount of compensation is about $24,000—less than half of the federal standard of $50,000, which many, like Roy, can’t pursue because they can’t afford the counsel or the wait (Roy feared he’d die before he received money); it takes an average of three years to receive state compensation. And the exonerated leave prison poor. As Roy said in a 2007 Innocence Project report that chronicled their help securing him medical care, “When you get out of prison, they give you $40 and a pair of corduroy pants, but that’s only for the guilty people. I didn’t even have anything to wear.” Some men still have to face the stigma that employers reserve for ex-convicts. One man, the Innocence Project writes in its 2010 report entitled “Making Up For Lost Time,” carries a copy of his pardon everywhere. For many left uncompensated, retirement becomes impossible. And twenty-three states don’t offer the possibility of settlements for victims of illegitimate convictions; of those that do, only ten provide job placement, housing assistance, legal assistance, and counseling.
In his fascinating, almost literary 2005 study, “Understanding the Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment,” Adrian Grounds details the psychological struggles of 18 victims of unjust sentences. In 1993, about a year and a half after Roy entered prison, Grounds, a forensic psychiatrist, was asked by the British government to see five exonerated men. They’d been incorrectly convicted to life sentences for two separate pub bombings that killed 26 people and injured 247 about two decades before. Grounds needed to write psychiatric reports for their claims for compensation. In the study, for which he interviewed 13 others, Grounds wrote, “I did not expect to find evidence of psychiatric morbidity.” But he did.
Because of the small number of subjects, Grounds cautions against making generalizations and assuming those interviewed—all of whom were men—represent the entire exonerated population. He acknowledges that since the interviews intended to help determine the reparations the interviewees received, the victims may’ve exaggerated their suffering. But he also writes that often prisoners learn to suppress their emotions, and many of the interviewees reported sleepless or anxious nights after recounting their experiences because they hadn’t analyzed their emotions before. Nonetheless, Grounds’ work constitutes the largest study of the psychological effects of wrongful incarceration.
Each subject spent at least six hours being interviewed on their pasts, their interactions with the police, and their lives after release. Grounds also interviewed at least two other people who knew the subjects well before prison—family, long-time friends—in order to corroborate their personalities before and after. And some cases resembled Roy. Most left school before sixteen; a New York Times survey in 2007 of 137 exonerated people found over half hadn’t finished high school. Five of the 18 from Grounds’ study recalled histories of heavy alcohol abuse and two of illicit drug use. Eleven had previous convictions. Twelve had fathered children. And half (nine, that is) served 15 years or more for wrongful sentences.
Like Roy, they entered into prison as fathers and exited as grandfathers. And disconnected. One man said of when, during prison visiting hours, his children asked him when he’d come home: “There’s nothing you can say to them… your world is crumbling around you.” And when the men came home, despite the years that’d passed, they reverted to mentally living at the age of when they left; for some, that meant they were 40-year-olds thinking they were still 25. They also felt like the people were the same age they’d left them at, too, which made them incapable of relating to peers and family members who’d moved on or grown up. Some could relate to strangers better than family—or to prison. Grounds writes that one man secretly snuck out in the dark and drove to the prison to stand and remember being in his cell. He said, “The family wants me to cut off the past but I can’t get ride of the past.” Some didn’t feel anything toward their families. “There comes a time when your family is just a word,” said one. “It’s like a slow death. In the end you feel nothing. You are made not to care. I’ve got… kids and I wouldn’t care a fuck if I didn’t see them again.”
It was just as strange and difficult for the interviewed family members. They’d struggled, but adapted to life on their own. Now their men returned withdrawn, distrustful, and unaffectionate. Strangers. Or shells. One slept with kitchen knives under his pillow. Another tore his bedroom doors from the hinges in a fit of paranoia, convinced the police would come and take him. Another man’s mother admitted to Grounds that having her son in prison was easier than having him home. And those who tried to return to living with past partners, couldn’t. Grounds writes, “these breakups were particularly tragic.”
In an email, Grounds wrote that he couldn’t give specific answers about Roy’s case, since he didn’t study it. But he did venture to offer a few insights: that Roy not returning to a previous wife after prison may have helped him, because he didn’t suffer the loss of losing a loved one like many others did; that the family’s initial feeling of closeness could’ve been affected by how separated their pasts had been; and that Roy unexpectedly surviving cirrhosis may have saved him from a depressed outlook of his future.
But Roy fell into another common trap: the New York Times survey found that one-sixth of the 137 respondents fell victim to abusing drugs, or back in prison. Roy says he can’t drink alcohol with the cyclosporine he takes to help his body accept the liver transplant. Once, the smell of wine on Raina’s breath as they kissed caused him to vomit. He doesn’t drop the LSD that he did in his younger years, or the cocaine he admits to doing in prison. He says he’s dropped pot. His inability to take drugs (which Billie Jo doesn’t believe) removed him from a dangerous coping mechanism that ensnarled many of the 18 men in Adrian Grounds’ study as they tried to escape their depression or post-traumatic stress.
Yet late last October, Roy was driving around Syracuse with a man he’d hired to paint his kitchen and lay down tiles in his bathroom. On Davis Street, two Syracuse police officers patrolling the area because of its reputation for drugs watched as they pulled up in front of a corner store. They say they saw Roy exit the car and walk up the street to take pictures of vacant houses. Meanwhile, they watched as the other man went into the store and came out within half a minute. The car didn’t have a front license plate, which provided the officers with a reason to pull them over. They searched the car—legally, a judge decided this October, almost a year later—and discovered a brick of heroin between the center console and passenger seat. One of the officers instructed Roy to get out of the car. After denying that he had any weapons on him, he consented to a pat down to check nonetheless. In Roy’s shirt pocket, the officer found a small amount of marijuana. In his wallet, he discovered cocaine. They arrested Roy.
They charged him with unlawful possession of marijuana, a pair of seventh-degree criminal possessions of a controlled substance, and possession and intent to sell of $500-worth of heroin, a felony that could get him at least one and up to 25 years of prison in November, if convicted. But the judge suppressed the police’s evidence — the pot, cocaine, and heroin — because while the car search was legal, the officer illegally frisked Roy for more weapons, which Roy did not consent to. So on December 9, 2011, the judge dismissed the charges. Roy says he was never concerned.
Two weeks before the suppression, Roy sits on his loveseat. He wears silver full-rimmed glasses and dresses in all black. His grey hair flows in a ponytail out of a fedora. It’s getting cold outside, and he says he’s going to Florida for the winter, once the case is settled. He starts a fire in his fireplace—the first one he’s ever owned—and says he’ll never feel completely comfortable. Too much has changed. He leans back, his gut peeking out from beneath his black wife-beater, and says, “I’m never going to be back to the home they took from me.”