Who Killed Earlene Barksdale?

Joseph Green Brown came within 15 hours of dying in Florida's electric chair. The Penalty traces the legal struggle to save Brown and raises questions about whether he was wrongfully accused of a 1973 Tampa murder.

The book, published last spring, is a fictionalized account of Brown's 14-year ordeal. If readers of The Penalty are curious about the actual court case, the stacks at the Hillsborough County Law Library won't help much.

The 1986 federal appellate ruling that sprang Brown from Death Row is nowhere in the casebooks. Someone appears to have used a razor to slice the pages containing the opinion right out of a law book at the library.

The court ruling does live on in legal cyberspace.

The appeals court concluded that a state prosecutor got a jury to convict Brown of raping, robbing and murdering a mother of five because he "knowingly allowed material false testimony to be introduced at trial." The court further found that the state "failed to step forward and make the falsity known" and "knowingly exploited the false testimony" during closing arguments.

The state attorney at the time of the 1974 trial was E. J. Salcines, now a state appeals court judge. Two Salcines assistants who handled the state's case have moved on as well. But their names are familiar to Tampa newspaper readers.

Robert H. Bonanno prosecuted Brown. Bonanno is today an embattled Hillsborough circuit judge who so far has weathered criminal, legislative and professional inquiries during the past year into misdeeds unrelated to the Brown case.

F. Dennis Alvarez, fresh from law school, aided Bonanno at the prosecution table, although he had yet to be admitted to the Florida Bar. Last July, Alvarez quit the county's chief judgeship in the wake of the latest flurry of scandals at the Hillsborough courthouse. Alvarez is talking about running for mayor of Tampa.

There are those who would like the public to forget about the murder and Joseph Brown, who was freed after the court acted. J. Michael Shea and G. Mathew Evans are not among them.

Mike Shea represented Brown and authored The Penalty, his first stab at writing something more accessible than legal briefs. "Bonanno will tell you to this day that Joseph Brown did it," said Shea. "That's bullshit."

In 1973, Mat Evans was just out of high school when his mother, Earlene Barksdale, was found dead at her shop with a bullet in her head. The Penalty has rekindled her son's desire to find the real killer.

Two months ago, Shea and Evans visited Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober. They asked Ober, who is serving his first term in office, to take another look at the Barksdale murder.

"Shea told me there are people downtown you can trust now," Evans said. "I knew back then there was nobody I could trust."

Ober told them that he could not reopen the case without physical evidence. Therein lies a problem.

After Brown was released in 1987, the Barksdale murder reverted to unsolved status. A year later, most of the evidence introduced at Brown's trial was turned over to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office by the court.

Sheriff's officials cannot account for its whereabouts.

Among the trial evidence listed in court records was carpet from the murder scene that Shea said contained semen samples. Those samples now could be subjected to DNA testing, unavailable to law enforcement in the 1970s.

Shea and Evans asked Ober to find out where that evidence went.

The Victim

The body of 34-year-old Earlene Treva Barksdale was discovered on July 7, 1973, at the Just Kids Shoppe on Busch Boulevard by Fred C. Barksdale, who later testified at Brown's trial that he was married to the victim.

Tampa lawyer Fred Barksdale never legally wed Earlene, according to Mat Evans, the oldest of the victim's five children.

Barksdale recently told Weekly Planet: "I was living with her as my wife." But Barksdale refused to characterize their exact legal status as a couple. "That's personal," he said. "I'm not going to get into that."

Evans said his mother assumed Barksdale's surname in the process of becoming his mistress and bearing him two children over a period of 12 years.

Earlene met Barksdale when he handled her divorce from Evans' father.

Eventually, Fred Barksdale had two families, one with Susan F. Barksdale in Tampa's Sunset Park section and another with Earlene T. Barksdale in Temple Terrace, according to Evans.

"We had a fully stocked household," said Evans. "Vacations, lake house. We didn't even know about Susan and them."

All Earlene's kids knew was that their main breadwinner was away from home a lot. "Fred Barksdale was an important attorney," said Evans. "Hey, you move into something, that's the norm. You accept it. Mighty important person, mighty busy attorney."

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