Lynn Brown: From robes to retirement

John Thompson • Mar 30, 2013 at 9:27 PM

ELIZABETHTON — At 5 p.m. Thursday, Lynn Brown closed out his long and distinguished career by signing his last legal order as Criminal Court Judge in the 1st Judicial District.

It was an unpretentious final act. He had no court appearances that day, so he was informally dressed in a red and black plaid shirt and wore red suspenders. He decided if the look was good enough for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, it was good enough for him.

It was a peaceful conclusion to a 24-year career in which he had presided over some of the most newsworthy trials in Upper East Tennessee, and before that, he had spent 11 years as a prosecutor of other notorious cases.

Brown said his first interest in law came from an uncle, Judge Ben Allen. Allen served as district attorney and as Circuit Court judge when Brown was a boy. “He was my mother’s oldest brother,” Brown said.

Despite the influence, Brown appeared to be headed toward a professorial life.

After graduating from Elizabethton High School, Brown majored in physics at Maryville College.

His plan was to eventually become a science professor, but after graduating with a degree in physics at Maryville and enrolling in graduate school, he faced a problem.

“I didn’t like it,” Brown said of his graduate school experience. “I knew it would take 5-7 years to get a degree.”

That was when Allen had his biggest influence on Brown.

“Uncle Ben looked at me and said ‘it’s not to late to go to law school.’ ”

With that advice, Brown sent in an application to just one law school and was accepted to the University of Tennessee.

Brown had an advantage as a law student. He knew there would be a place for him after law school at the family firm of Allen and Nelson in Elizabethton. As a result, Brown fearlessly took the hardest courses and the hardest professors.

“It didn’t matter to me if I thought I would learn more,” he said.

Brown’s plans to pursue a career with the family law firm did not happen. He passed the bar in May 1977 and had just begun to practice law when District Attorney General Lewis May offered him a job in July.

“General May was very kind to me,” Brown said.

With the heavy case loads that prosecutors have, Brown quickly learned the value of preparation.

“I have a penchant for preparation,” Brown said.

Brown continued to serve as a prosecutor when David Crockett became the district attorney general. Brown admires Crockett’s skills as a trial attorney.

“He is one of the best,” Brown said of Crockett’s ability to communicate with a jury. Brown also admired Crockett’s style in closing arguments, especially the way he could take the words of the defense attorney and use them against the defense. “He just shot them down,” Brown said.

Brown’s most memorable case as a prosecutor was the murder trial of Ricky Harris, who was convicted of killing his mother-in-law, Dolly Gouge.

Brown still has fond memories of Gouge. “She was very kind to me when she waited on me at Dino’s (Restaurant).”

Although that case was tried 25 years ago, Harris continues to file legal challenges from his prison cell. “Ricky Harris is a highly intelligent, strange individual,” Brown said.

There have been many memorable cases during Brown’s career on the bench, but one that stands out is one he did not get to finish.

Brown struggled for several years against the delaying tactics of Howard Hawk Willis, who was accused in the murder and dismemberment of two teenage newlyweds from Georgia, Adam Chrismer and Samantha Leming Chrismer. His efforts ended when he had to recuse himself after Willis filed a $2 million lawsuit against him in federal court. Brown said the lawsuit was just another delaying tactic.

He said one of his biggest regrets is that he didn’t have another panel of jurors when the case was about to go to trial to withstand the jury challenges. He said the judge who succeeded him, Jon Kerry Blackwood, brought in hundreds of potential jurors.

While Willis’ delaying tactics may not have prevented him from being convicted of two first-degree murders, he said it probably means that Willis won’t face the electric chair because of all the automatic and other appeals the 60-year-old convict will have.

Another memorable case was the two murder trials of Steven Allen Jones, who was convicted both times of killing Carla Scott in a McDonald’s Restaurant parking lot while she had their two children in the car with her. Jones became enraged after the second conviction and Brown ordered him gagged. The bailiffs used defense attorney Gene Scott’s spare tie as the gag.

Brown said he wonders how the two children are doing and hopes they do not have memories of their mother’s violent death.

The judge remains concerned for other children, especially the victims of abuse from cases that have been tried in his court. He said one of the most troubling verdicts he has experienced was when a jury found a man not guilty when Brown felt the man was guilty of child abuse. Brown takes solace in knowing the Department of Children’s Services is not bound by what happens in a criminal trial. A civil hearing determines the children’s status.

Brown said one of the changes he has seen in law over his career is in domestic violence cases, where the law now requires an arrest be made in most cases. Another change is in drug cases. Marijuana use was once energetically prosecuted. Brown said marijuana is now legal in two states. At the same time, many dangerous drugs that were barely known 30 years ago now take up much of the court’s docket. He said “methamphetamine has become a scourge.”

He believes that the judges in the future will need “more analytical thinking.”

As for Brown, he plans to remain in his native Carter County and asks why would anyone want to retire to anywhere else. He does plan to make frequent trips to see his children and grandchildren, who live in another part of the country.

One of the things Brown will miss will be “seeing a case that is well tried by a great prosecutor and defense attorney. It is like watching artists at work.”

At the top of his list was watching the interplay between Assistant District Attorney Ken Baldwin and defense attorney David Crockett.

Brown praised the attorneys of the 1st Judicial District he has worked with throughout his career.

He also thanked his assistants, Gloria Hardin and Johnnie Pinkard. “So many times I have asked them to prepare something and they told me ‘I have already put that on your desk.’ ” He also thanked court reporter Pam Wilson.

“I did better work with these people around,” Brown said.

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