With help from journalism students, Miami man freed after 12 years behind bars for murder

One month after a judge ordered a new trial and cast doubt on the evidence against him for murder, Tony Brown is about to be a free man.

Prosecutors on Tuesday dropped the case against Brown, who spent 12 years behind bars for a murder outside a North Miami-Dade nightclub, a killing his defense lawyers said he did not commit. Brown will be released later today.

“It took a long time, but the justice system worked in this case,” defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein said Tuesday morning. “And we are grateful our client will now be free.”

Brown’s freedom came thanks to students from the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University, who interviewed a prison inmate that admitted Brown was not the killer. The inmate, Arnold Clark, later testified in court that his friend, a DJ at the club that night, was the actual killer, not Brown.

In September, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O agreed with the defense, casting doubt on the state’s key eyewitness and the significance of DNA found on a cap found at the crime scene.

“Brown presented credible, admissible evidence demonstrating that the crimes of which he was convicted may very well have been committed by another,” De la O wrote in his order.

At Brown’s original trial, prosecutors maintained that he was the one who shot and killed Nigel Whatley during a robbery and scuffle outside the Players Club in October 2005. A surviving victim, Michael Morris, who was wounded in the robbery, identified Brown as the attacker.

But Morris told police he was only “60 percent” certain the attacker was Brown, who also went by the name Andre Gonzalez. Defense lawyers said Miami-Dade police homicide detectives mishandled the photo lineup when interviewing the surviving victim.

Other key evidence was Brown’s DNA, which was discovered on a black skull cap discarded near Whatley’s body, a cap Morris later claimed the gunman wore during the robbery. During the trial, Gonzalez’s girlfriend testified she was with him at the club that night, but took no part in the killing.

His defense lawyers suggested that Brown dropped his cap in the parking lot that night, and detectives planted the idea of the gunman wearing the cap in the mind of the eyewitness. Judge de la O agreed, saying Morris never mentioned the gunman wore a cap until nine months after the shooting.

Jurors in 2010 originally found Gonzalez guilty of second-degree murder, attempted murder and armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison. Afterward, a Miami-Dade judge granted a request for a new trial, but the decision later was overturned by an appeals court.

As for Clark, he said he initially refused to testify at the time of the crime for fear of reprisals from the nightclub, or the real killer.