Isley's climb at SBI followed his claim of racism

Staff writersOctober 17, 2010 

  • Juries in conservative communities have handed down large verdicts to the wrongfully imprisoned, even when the plaintiffs have a checkered past.

    Earl Washington won a $2.25 million verdict from a conservative and almost exclusively white jury in western Virginia. Washington spent nine years on death row before being cleared by DNA of a rape and murder. Washington won the award even though he would have been in prison for that entire time for an unrelated assault on an elderly neighbor.

    In 2006, Larry Mayes won a $9 million verdict in Indiana. He had spent 18 years in prison for rape before being cleared by DNA. Mayes had a long criminal history and was imprisoned nine of the 11 years before the wrongful conviction.

    After being cleared of a rape conviction by DNA, Larry McGhee won a $14 million verdict in 2006 in Tulsa - $1 million for each year in prison.

    And in Mississippi, Joe Kelly won a $1.5 million verdict for being wrongfully arrested and held illegally for just two hours.

  • The story so far

    In July 1993, retired teacher Katherine Lynch was found beaten to death in her home in Wades boro.

    SBI agent Mark Isley and detectives from the Anson County Sheriff's Office - for reasons that still aren't clear - zeroed in on Floyd Brown as the suspect.

    Their proof was an elaborate six-page confession written byIsley after an interrogation of Brown. Isley said Brown uttered the confession exactly as he recorded it.

    Because Brown is mentally dis abled, doctors at Dorothea Dix Hospital declared that he lacked the mental capacity to proceed to trial. For 14 years, he was kept at Dix, where doctors worked to help him understand the court system so he might be able to stand trial.

    In 2007, Brown's attorneys successfully argued to Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson that the confession was a work of fiction and that Brown needed to be freed.

    Brown now lives in a foster home, where his guardian helps him manage his daily affairs.

It's been a mystery how SBI agent Mark Isley's career soared while evidence mounted that he fabricated a confession that forced a mentally disabled man to be locked away at a mental hospital for 14 years.

Isley's climb is now clear, chronicled in a racial discrimination settlement released Friday, months after The News & Observer first requested the documents.

In 2004, Isley complained to agency leaders that he and several other black employees had routinely been passed over for better jobs. Isley bragged that his record was unblemished and that he was better qualified than white counterparts picked for promotions.

In fall 2005, the agency gave Isley a raise, made him chief of the Medicaid fraud unit and gave him offices in Charlotte and Raleigh.

Months before Isley complained about being passed over for promotions, attorneys for Floyd Brown, an Anson County man with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, accused Isley of lying and planting evidence on defendants. Months before the SBI settled with Isley, Brown's attorneys argued in court that Isley falsified a confession for Brown to the 1993 slaying of a woman in Wadesboro.

Those complaints grew louder and louder over the years as lawyers fought to free Brown from confinement at Dorothea Dix Hospital. SBI leaders and the Attorney General's Office turned a deaf ear, even as a judge released Brown in 2007 and cast doubt on the alleged confession.

The N&O chronicled Brown's case in "Agents' Secrets," a series that documented how SBI agents bullied the vulnerable and twisted reports and court testimony when the truth threatened to undermine their cases. Problems extended beyond field agents to the SBI laboratory, where analysts pushed past the accepted bounds of science and shaped evidence to fit the needs of police and prosecutors.

After the articles ran in August, the new SBI chief in August called for the first - and only - internal investigation into Isley's handling of the case.

"This investigation should have begun long ago," said David Rudolf, a Charlotte lawyer who filed a civil suit this summer on behalf of Brown. "It's unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and newspaper reporting to motivate the SBI to look into the actions of Mr. Isley over all these years."

The settlement that boosted Isley's career cost the SBI little. Now, a lawsuit attacking Isley's handling of Brown's case and agency leaders' unwillingness to supervise him may cost the SBI and the state big bucks.

Nationally, juries have awarded those wrongfully convicted an average of $1 million for every year of incarceration, Rudolf said.

If the case goes to trial, Rudolf will likely argue for punitive damages. The SBI and its insurers could be forced to pay triple damages if jurors find that Isley and his supervisors had consciously and intentionally disregarded Brown's rights and safety. If a jury were to award Brown $1 million for each year he was locked up, triple damages could bring the total to $42 million.

A key element for punitive damages would be management's failure to investigate Isley despite multiple warnings of misconduct. Former SBI Director Robin Pendergraft has defended Isley as recently as July, saying she knew of no facts that showed Isley had done wrong.

Isley did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Brown's vulnerability would be front and center in any jury trial.

Brown spent 14 years locked away at Dix Hospital because doctors declared him incompetent to stand trial. Brown can't read or write or manage his daily life. Doctors at Dix testified that the handwritten confession logged by Isley was far too coherent and advanced to have been uttered by Brown.

The SBI was on alert about potential misconduct by Isley in the spring of 2004. Brown's attorneys requested Isley's personnel records, and in the presence of SBI attorney John Watters alleged that Isley had planted drugs on defendants and had a pattern of coercing confessions from others.

Isley testified in April 2005 that he had taken down Brown's confession verbatim.

SBI settles with Isley

In December 2004, Isley filed a discrimination complaint against the SBI.

According to those documents, Isley had applied to be the special agent in charge of the Capital District in Raleigh. Isley said he had more education and more experience as a manager and supervisor than Marshall Tucker, who got the job.

"I have never as much been reprimanded/written up during my 15 year SBI career," Isley wrote. "My last two (2) employee evaluations were documented at a level of OUTSTANDING."

Isley went on to detail cases where black agents applied for supervisory positions that Pendergraft gave to white men.

"There has not been a single SBI sworn law enforcement black male ever promoted by the current administration when a white person also applied for the same managerial position," Isley wrote. "This discriminatory practice has resulted in a white male being promoted each of the ten (10) times that a black male had applied for the same position."

The SBI settled with Isley in October 2005. As part of settlement, Isley was made a supervisor in the Medicaid fraud unit. The agency raised his salary to $72,081. Isley was the highest paid special agent in charge in his pay grade.

The SBI based Isley in Charlotte, near his home in Monroe. It gave him two offices, one in Charlotte and one in Raleigh. Officials agreed to pay his travel expenses and per diem when he worked several days a week in Raleigh. And the agency agreed to pay $1,575.53 to Isley's lawyer, Julius Chambers of Charlotte.

Pendergraft also issued a policy revising the promotion process and increasing minority recruitment and hiring.

Expanded lawsuit

Pendergraft and her hiring practices were at the center of Isley's complaints against the SBI in 2004. Now, she's under attack again, front and center in a lawsuit brought by Brown's attorneys.

Brown's attorneys filed a lawsuit in June against the SBI, specifically Mark Isley and retired agent Bill Lane, who was present during Brown's interrogation.

Now Pendergraft has been added to the suit, partly because of her continued defense of Isley and his handling of the Brown case.

Pendergraft was removed as SBI director in July following an interview with The N&O, in which she struggled to answer questions about the agency.

In Brown's amended lawsuit, lawyers allege that Pendergraft and other unnamed supervisors showed "malice, ill will and wanton disregard" for Brown by failing to appropriately supervise and train Isley and Lane. Pendergraft, the lawsuit claims, acted in concert with Isley and Lane to "conceal evidence that pointed to Floyd Brown's innocence."

Pendergraft did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the SBI said there has been no change in Isley's position or duties.

Pendergraft now heads the Medicaid fraud unit for the Department of Justice. As a result, Isley again works for her.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927