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A Book Review by Guest Blogger Richard H. Underwood

November 14, 2017
Book Review: Who Killed Betty Gail Brown? by Robert G. Lawson, Professor Emeritus 2015
By: Richard H. Underwood, Edward T. Breathitt Professor of Law

I have researched a number of nineteenth and early twentieth century murder cases, and when I travel to book fairs it never fails that someone claiming a remote relationship to a victim or perpetrator I discuss in my studies will offer up a protest regarding my account of the case, or the justice of the outcome. Nothing concrete, just something felt or heard from someone on down the line. As a lawyer, I am always reluctant to claim that I know what happened 100 or 200 years ago. My questioners are usually much more certain about things. I always listen to such views, but I don’t always pursue the tips. I move on.

I suspect that Bob Lawson will hear from such folk, and receive many tips; maybe even a strong protest or two. I also suspect that, like me, he will move on. Although Bob was intimately involved in the investigation of Betty Gail Brown’s murder, and the defense of Alex Arnold, Jr., the man charged with the crime, the title of the book answers the question many will ask him. Bob does not know who killed Betty Gail Brown. The killer might have been Arnold, but the evidence did not convince a jury; and there was reasonable doubt.

This book might have been titled, The Trial of a Confession. Betty Gail Brown was murdered in Lexington, Kentucky, on October 26, 1961. There was intense media attention. The investigation was exhaustive, but crime science was still limited in the 1960s. The case went cold. It was not until January of 1965 that a real suspect came the attention of the Lexington police. That suspect, Alex Arnold, Jr., was born in Lexington, and had lived there most of his life. He was an alcoholic Korean War veteran who had drifted to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he was arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. While in custody, the disturbed man told a tale of how he thought he had killed a young woman in Lexington. The Lexington police were summoned to Klamath Falls to interrogate Arnold. Arnold would sign a detailed confession, written out in a detective’s hand. The confession included much detail from the actual crime scene – everything that was consistent with Arnold having been the killer. The police and other members of the community were obviously relieved. Two lawyers were appointed to defend Arnold. One was Amos Eblen, a sixty-year-old with a distinguished career history. The other was Robert (Bob) Lawson, a young member of Eblen’s firm.

I will present only the barest outline of the defense investigation and the trial of Arnold. Suffice it to say that Eblen and Lawson found that Arnold had confessed, but he had provided the detectives with many details of the crime and his conduct (as he remembered things) that were inconsistent with the physical facts found at the scene. These details were left out of the written confession. Moreover, Arnold made the curious statement that he was ninety-nine percent sure he had done the deed. Was he, himself, unsure? That odd statement, too, was left out of the confession. Moreover, because of the intense publicity in the case, the facts that were included in the confession were available to the public, and it was discovered that Arnold had discussed the facts of the crime with others. Had he actually done the crime, or had he convinced himself that he had done the crime when he had not?

It has been recognized for many years that even without compulsion, people can confess to crimes that they did not commit. One of my favorite stories along these lines comes out of seventeenth century “Campden Wonder.” A more recent variation on this theme came in the much publicized “Central Park Jogger Case.” University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett recently published a book titled Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecution Go Wrong which deals, in part, with false and contaminated confessions. If a man is innocent, how can he give a detailed and accurate confession? The very idea that this might occur is a concept that is foreign to many, and Garrett’s insights at first seem revolutionary.

But if you read Bob Lawson’s book, you will have the benefit of his insights from fifty years of law teaching, and the benefit of a master class for identifying and dealing with false or contaminated confessions - how two lawyers in a 1960s case encountered the problem, and took it on.

Who Killed Betty Gail Brown? is a must read for lawyers, judges, journalists, psychologists, social workers – anyone who works in the criminal justice system. It should be supplemental reading in every law school course on criminal procedure.