A Virginia judge has found a Marine veteran not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting death of his abusive stepfather.
Former Cpl. Michael Alexander Brown, 24, faced a murder trial recently, when both the prosecution and defense agreed to let a judge decide if Brown was sane on the morning of Nov. 9, 2019, when he shot and killed his stepfather.
Brown no longer will face prison for the death, but instead will be committed to a psychiatric hospital until the court approves his release, based on medical evaluations.
His lawyer, Deborah Caldwell-Bono, said she will continue to represent Brown as he receives mental health treatment and evaluations. She said her client’s state of mind has been clear since he has been in custody and on psychiatric medication.
As far as his release, that will be up to both medical professionals and a ruling from the court.
“We’re hopeful that it won’t take too long,” she said. “He didn’t harm anyone while on the run, he didn’t commit any other crimes.”
At the time of the killing, Brown had been absent from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina ― where he was serving as a combat engineer with the 8th Engineer Support Battalion ― for more than two weeks and was listed as a deserter.
Brown fled the scene, leaving Rodney Brown, 54, dead in front of his home.
The Marine then evaded police, triggering school lockdowns and widespread searches and was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List before he was found on Nov. 27, 2019, in the attic of the same home where he killed his stepfather.
When he exited that attic, he carried with him “gibberish” writings and a book with sentimental scraps of messages from his then-wife.
After reading detailed reports from the defense and prosecution expert witnesses, which both agreed he was not sane during the shooting, Franklin County, Virginia, Judge Stacey Moreau ruled that Brown had suffered from “blackouts,” “lost time” and “dissociative amnesia,” the Roanoke Times newspaper first reported Wednesday.
Dissociative amnesia involves the “temporary loss of recall memory caused by dissociation,” can be voluntary or involuntary and is “often a result of psychological trauma,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Moreau said in her ruling that Brown had not been able to “appreciate the nature of his actions” during the shooting due to a “mental disease or defect,” the Roanoke Times reported.
“He was physically present, but not conscious,” testified Sharon Kelley, a clinical psychologist, Roanoke Times reported.
Prior to the ruling, the prosecutor in the case, Virginia Commonwealth Attorney A.J. Dudley, had argued that Brown concocted a scheme to leave his post and fake a psychotic break so that he could kill Rodney Brown and get away with it.
“Does it sound convenient that the things he can’t remember are the things that would be the most incriminating to him?” Dudley said, Roanoke Times reported. “Or is Michael (Brown) always explaining things in the way that is best for Michael?”
His attorney told Marine Corps Times on Thursday that it was the first case in her 40-year career that ended in a not guilty by reason of insanity ruling.
But the decision didn’t surprise her.
“The issue of insanity at the time of the offense was, to me, apparent from the first time I met him,” Caldwell-Bono said.
The attorney said that her client, who has remained in custody since his 2019 arrest, will be credited time served for separate charges he pleaded guilty to, which involve the breaking and entering of Rodney Brown’s home while he evaded police.
The plan now is for a mental health assessment to be done and then Brown will be transferred to a mental health care facility. He will be reassessed every six months and those results will be sent to the court for review, she said.
‘He wasn’t Michael anymore’
In the months leading up to his desertion, Brown’s wife began telling him he’d been mean to her and threatening but he had no recollection, she said.
His marriage soon after ended in divorce.
Over the ensuing weeks and months, he began to black out more often and spiraled into a deepening depression, Caldwell-Bono said.
At one point he had gone alone to Croatan National Forest, also in North Carolina, to shoot his firearms while off duty. He had blacked out, and when he later regained awareness he saw a dead dog that he realized he’d shot.
Brown told experts in court-appointed interviews that he, his brother and his mother all had been abused repeatedly by his stepfather, Rodney Brown, throughout his childhood. He often defended his younger brother, taking additional beatings from the man.
Despite the abuse and criminal charges against him for those acts that were later resolved, Rodney Brown continued to care for the boys, for long stretches of time without their mother, Vanessa Hanson, who suffers from a schizoaffective disorder, causing her to be institutionalized for eight years during Michael Brown’s youth, the Roanoke Times reported.
Symptoms of schizoaffective disorder include depression, mood disorders, hallucinations and delusions, according to guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association.
Shooting the dog shocked Brown to a panic point where he decided to distance himself from his friends and fellow Marines, coming up with a plan to disappear, fearing he would be institutionalized as his mother had.
But first, he visited his mother on October 31, 2019, to tell her why he’d left his post.
Hanson testified in preliminary court hearings in 2020 that her son had a “pressured,” “deep” and “urgent” voice when they spoke
“He wasn’t Michael anymore,” she previously testified.
About a week later, after having hid out in his recreational vehicle in the Franklin County, Virginia, area he went to his grandmother’s home to see his mom, perhaps for the last time before he left for good, Caldwell-Bono told Marine Corps Times.
But his mother was at Rodney Brown’s home nearby. So, Brown drove there instead.
Brown’s memory is missing from the incident and his mother later testified only that she’d heard popping sounds and went outside to find Rodney Brown dead.
A medical examiner’s report entered into evidence showed that Rodney Brown had three gunshot wounds to his head and five to his torso. The same report noted that the bullets had been fired from two different guns, a .22 caliber rifle and pistol, Roanoke Times reported.
The shooting and Brown’s flight launched a massive manhunt that immobilized portions around Roanoke, Virginia. Police found Brown’s RV in a local church parking lot and, due to his combat engineer training, feared it could be rigged with explosives.
They tore open the side of the RV with SWAT equipment. In the search of the vehicle, they found ammunition, seven handguns and two rifles, according to court documents.
Brown had not received a psychiatric diagnosis prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps, his attorney said. In elementary school, he had been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder.
“There’s no indication that anybody in the Marines should have known,” Caldwell-Bono said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.