The story with an ending we'll never know

Published May 31, 2001|Updated Sep. 10, 2005

From his South Tampa home, lawyer Mike Shea gets on the phone and talks to radio hosts in Canada and Iowa to promote his book.

Talking to me, though, he complains. Hardly anyone in Tampa Bay has heard about The Penalty, Shea's book about a murder and the man who didn't commit it but nevertheless was nearly executed.

So let this column serve as notice to the bay area that Shea has written his book. You can find it online at

It isn't a great novel. The story is told almost entirely in dialogue, not action. The characters have no meat on their bones. The result reads like a beginner's first draft.

Still, The Penalty matters.

The true story behind it is a nasty piece of Tampa history about what happens when murder, influence and racism meet.

Almost 28 years ago, in July 1973, 35-year-old Earlene Barksdale was found dead in the children's clothing shop she ran on Busch Boulevard. She had been shot in the head.

Shea represented the man who was nearly executed for her murder although there was no physical evidence against him. Joseph Green Brown's main offense was that he was black, and poor.

Earlene Barksdale was white and the girlfriend of Fred Barksdale, a lawyer who knew his way around Tampa's courthouse the way most people know their way around their block. Even while Fred Barksdale was married to another woman, Earlene had taken his last name. She bore him two daughters.

The only testimony that implicated Joseph Green Brown came from his supposed accomplice, Ronald Floyd. Later, Floyd said he had been pressured by authorities to make up his story. But that wasn't what finally got Brown's conviction overturned in 1986. A federal appeals court concluded that the prosecutor knew Floyd was lying when he testified during the trial that he had not been offered probation in return for his testimony.

In Shea's book, the real story is about as dressed up and disguised as a stripper. The name Barksdale has been changed to Bloomingdale. While Fred is still Fred, Earlene is Elaine. Joseph Green Brown, is Joseph Brown Green. The name of the man who testified against him is not Floyd but Fowler.

Shea says he wrote the story as fiction because he had no choice. He had no way to prove his suspicions, the way he'd have to in non-fiction. All he could say by writing the book was "that there appears to be a lot of unanswered questions about Mr. Barksdale's involvement."

Yet Fred Barksdale was barely investigated.

Shea now believes that Barksdale was angry at Earlene. She was seeing somebody else. She knew that Barksdale was breaking the law, Shea said.

Barksdale later went to prison for income tax evasion, for failing to pay the IRS for what he made getting traffic tickets fixed. Years after that, when he was freed, Barksdale told me in a voice just this side of a snarl he didn't kill Earlene.

Shea believed that DNA testing, which didn't exist when Earlene Barksdale was killed, could be used now. She had been sexually assaulted, and police took semen samples from her body and clothing and a piece of carpet. That's the very sort of thing on which DNA testing might be used, Shea figured. Then prosecutors could seek a blood sample from people, including Barksdale.

"It could be done," Shea said.

He didn't know the rest of the story when he wrote his novel.

I learned it Wednesday. I asked about the evidence.

Trial evidence is maintained by the office of the Clerk of Courts. I reached Audrey Colston, the director of evidence for the clerk. She said that all the evidence from Earlene Barksdale's killing was sent to the Sheriff's Office to be destroyed in March 1988.