Paul Browning, 63, was released last month after 33 years on Nevada’s death row for a 1985 killing of a Las Vegas jeweler that he has consistently maintained he did not commit.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Mr. Browning’s conviction in 2017 after finding that “a mixture of disturbing prosecutorial misconduct and woefully inadequate assistance of counsel” led to “extreme malfunctions” at his trial.
In March, the trial judge dismissed the charges against Mr. Browning, finding that the death of prosecution witnesses who were not adequately questioned at trial meant that “a fair trial consistent with due process is no longer possible.” Prosecutors appealed the dismissal and Mr. Browning remained on death row until the judge ordered his release on August 8. The State’s appeal is pending at the Nevada Supreme Court.
The federal appeals court found that police and prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense, including evidence that bloody shoeprints found at the crime scene that did not match Mr. Browning’s shoes; a key witness who may have committed the crime had been offered a reduced sentenced in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Browning; and the victim’s description of his assailant’s hairstyle did not match Mr. Browning’s hair.
This evidence would have made a difference to the jury, the court concluded, because “the prosecution’s trial evidence was remarkably weak.” The State’s case, it found, relied on flawed identifications and unreliable testimony, “[a]nd the physical evidence was just as consistent with Browning having been framed as with him being the killer.”
The court also found that Mr. Browning’s appointed lawyer — a former death-penalty prosecutor who had been practicing criminal defense for less than a year and did not interview the police who responded to the scene, examine the evidence against Mr. Browning, or investigate the crime — fell short of constitutional requirements. Because the State’s case was so weak, the court found, there is a strong possibility the jury would not have convicted Mr. Browning if his lawyer had offered the evidence he would have gotten if he had investigated the case.
After his release, Mr. Browning told the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the trauma he experienced on death row. “Being in there that long, you see a lot of things that affect you,” he said. “You get to know people, no matter how horrendous their crimes were. You see a lot of death — natural causes, suicide. It affects you.”
“It wasn’t so much about me getting out,” he said of his fight to prove his innocence. “It’s about me sitting there in court, starting with the preliminary hearing, and you see the witnesses testifying against you — all of the misconduct that occurred during trial. It’s just unjust. And it kind of hits you, right here in your gut. And that’s what has driven me.”
Now, he said, “I just want to find a little bit of peace after coming through all this madness.”