Forensic Files Got it Wrong – PART 3: Serial Killer?

In PARTS 1 & 2 of this three-part post, both defendants Carloss Robinson and Elwood Jones have maintained their innocence despite being convicted of murder. In PART 3, the defendant Robert Browne maintains his innocence for one murder, but claims credit for 48 others.

As the longest running True Crime series on TV, Forensic Files began in the 1990’s. One of my favorite things is that the female killers from this era look like they came from the set of Designing Women.

Because DNA profiling was still in its infancy, cases depicted in these early episodes relied heavily on pseudoscience – like psychological profiling, polygraphs, and fingerprint evidence. The ‘smoking gun’ in this case was fingerprint evidence.

The validity of fingerprint evidence has never actually been proven. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Insufficient data exist to determine how unique fingerprint features really are, thus making it scientifically baseless to claim that an analysis has enabled examiners to narrow the pool of sources to a single person.

Despite this fact, prosecutors often lead juries to believe that fingerprint evidence is irrefutable. It is not, which is why I am not convinced by this next case.

“Screen Pass”: Season 12, Episode 12

Summary: A 13-year old girl goes missing. Friends and family come to the house to help search for her and thus contaminate the crime scene. Police lift 3 smudged, partial prints off of a window screen (hence their punny title; I would have gone with ‘Bad Impression’), which they believe were left behind by the abductor. The prints are eventually identified as belonging to Robert Charles Browne, a man who lived 1/2 mile away from the victim.

When I saw this episode, I was shocked that Robert Browne (hey, that’s my dad’s name!) was convicted of child abduction and murder based solely on fingerprint evidence. I think there were a lot of biases working against him.

The case had gone cold for 4 years, at which point the new Captain of Detectives for the El Paso County Sheriff’s office made solving this case his #1 priority. So, the police were determined to get a conviction – despite a lack of evidence.

Fingerprint analysis relies heavily on the skill of the print examiner, and their own biases can creep in. In this instance, the print examiner could have known about the crime, plus the fact that Browne lived nearby. On top of that there was the added pressure of solving this case because it was the new captain’s top priority. Perhaps these factors resulted in the print examiner forcing a match?

Based on the fact that Browne had prior convictions for burglary and car theft (but no violent crimes), prosecutors claimed that Browne murdered the victim in a robbery gone wrong. Browne maintained his innocence but was convicted. He later pled guilty to avoid the death penalty but to this day has never admitted to killing this young victim.

Robert Browne is listed in Murderpedia as: “Serial Killer?”

Five years into his life sentence, Browne started claiming to have taken the lives of 48 people – which would make him the most prolific serial killer in US history.

Browne’s murder claims are vague and scattered. Victims range from young women to gay men; the methods of murder range from strangulation to shooting; the locations range from Louisiana to Vietnam. There is no evidence linking him to these murders. Browne claimed he never kept souvenirs from his victims, just occasionally stole things of value which he sold or gave away. Anyone who watches as much Murder Porn as me knows that serial killers tend to: kill the same type of victim; use the same method to kill; and keep souvenirs. We also know that prison is an especially brutal place for men who kill women and children.

Here’s my theory: Browne, tired of being targeted by his fellow inmates for murdering a little girl, decided to rebrand himself as a serial killer. So, he researched unsolved murders and then claimed credit for them, hoping that something would stick.

After more than a decade of investigating these claims, Browne has only been convicted of one additional murder – that of a 15 year old girl whose body was never found. Detectives were able corroborate circumstantial evidence; they proved Browne had stolen the victim’s car and television.

So the question remains: Did Browne kill one girl, two girls, or 48 people?  In the time since being convicted Browne has had many interactions with investigators. He certainly plays the role of the crazed serial killer; he speaks in vague biblicisms with misogynistic undertones; he taunts the police with clues about his crimes; plus, he looks like Charles Manson.

But, maybe it’s all just an act. Maybe it’s survival.

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