April 26, 2011

An act of conscience?

Only Edward Brown knows why he came forward about a 1969 murder, 
but it will be up to a court to determine the value of the confession. 

Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- The motivation behind a confession in a 41-yearold murder investigation will be a key to how the case progresses, a legal scholar says.Edward Brown of Londonderry has been charged with manslaughter in connection with a 1969 cold case.
In the week since the news of Brown’s arrest, there has been speculation that his confession was an act of conscience.
Now it will be up to the legal system to sift through the facts and discover
 the truth.
“We don’t know yet to what extent the police department was actively pursuing it, but certainly Brown coming forward in an act of conscience helped them to clear up this very old case,” said Michael Coyne, associate dean of the Mas­
sachusetts School of Law. “What we have, in a way, is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tell-tale Heart.’ All your life you knew you’d done something bad, and perhaps the pressure became too much. There are so many things we could speculate on that would motivate someone to come forward.” Brown is the one who broke the code of silence that he and two others, Michael Ferreira, 57, of Salem, and Walter Shelley, 60, of Tewksbury, Mass., allegedly agreed to one fateful night in September 1969 after a high school dance. 

The victim, John McCabe, was 15 when he was beaten, tied up and left in a vacant field to die. 
Picking apart the murder mystery that had been languishing in a Lowell, Mass., Police Department cold case file until last week had much to do with Brown coming forward. 
While both Shelley and Ferreira are being held on murder charges, Brown was released on his own recognizance, charged with manslaughter. The difference, said Michael Coyne, associate dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, is that while a murder charge can result in life in prison, manslaughter could mean as few as three to five years in prison, at the court’s discretion. 
As it stands, the manslaughter charge already signals the preferential treatment Brown will likely continue to receive in exchange for his cooperation with law enforcement, Coyne said, adding plenty of speculation and intrigue to what already promises to be an unusual case. 
Beyond the practical and legal questions there are moral questions to be answered by those who ultimately decide Brown’s fate, Coyne said, whether it’s a judge or jury. 
A brief doorstep interview by the Boston Herald with Brown’s wife, Carolyn Brown, after her husband’s arrest has shed limited light on the “why now” part of the puzzle. 
She talked about her husband as an “honorable man,” good husband and father of two sons, who retired from the Air Force a master sergeant, adding that her husband’s confession came with her “prodding and the detectives’ prodding.” 
Should the case go before a jury, a huge factor in Brown’s fate will be in knowing what that motivation was, Coyne said, “A jury would be perplexed as to how this secret was kept and what motivated Brown now, 41 years later. And the question from a lawyer’s standpoint is whether his testimony is truthful or self-serving. You have one of the three main people involved in a murder who, at this point in time, comes forward. In such cases, the person who makes the deal is always suspect to a rigorous cross-examination — not just about what happened, but about why they waited so long,” Coyne said. 
“It’s questionable, frankly, to say it was all out of honor. If he’d been so honorable his whole life, he’d have come forward years ago. There must be something else that forces the action. It could be an interesting case to see tried, but I’ll bet we’re a long way from done. The version of the story the police have is sympathetic to the one who came forward. If there are three suspects involved, you will have three views of how something took place. The solidarity is gone once one of them gives up the pact. And you can almost bet the other two will turn on Brown.” 
Whether there will — or should — be leniency for Brown is a matter for the court to decide, said John McCabe’s mother, Evelyn McCabe of Tewksbury. 
“I have no idea why Mr. Brown came forward. I just know he did. As to why, only God knows,” McCabe said. 
She firmly believes her nightly prayers were finally answered. 
“I always wanted closure, always wanted to know why. Now, I’m dealing with the why, which is honestly just as hard as dealing with Johnny’s death,” McCabe said. 
What she learned from detectives, and continues to learn from various newspaper accounts this week, shocked her. 
“They said Johnny was flirting with a girl. I never thought it would be over something that stupid. John wasn’t even interested in girls yet, at least as far as I knew,” McCabe said. “He was just a boy. I also found out many of Johnny’s classmates were still calling police as much as my husband looking for answers all these years later.” 
She said she’s hung on this long and is determined to see the process all the way through, to the end. 
“It’s for the jury to decide, not me.” McCabe said. “I don’t know why he confessed now, but I know he didn’t stop what happened to my boy. I believe in justice, and I won’t forget how, for 41-and-a-half years, I’ve suffered.” 

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