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Roxanna Brown: How Can This Happen in America?


If puzzle pieces are missing in the Roxanna Brown case, the picture is clear, a terrifying vignette of relinquished justice and lost humanity in America.

Roxanna, a U.S. citizen who ran Bangkok University's ceramics museum and fiercely opposed illegal dealings in Asian antiquities, came to lecture in Seattle in May.

Federal agents arrested her on a single count of wire fraud. An assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles said inflated appraisals over her electronic signature enabled art donors to save a few thousand dollars on taxes.

Though frail at 62 with an amputated leg, she was held without bail. Too sick to appear earlier, she was to see a judge on May 13. We Americans, innocent until proven guilty, get our day in court. But she didn't make it.

However unintended, Roxanna Brown suffered capital punishment without trial because of what appears to be simple identity theft, now so common to our daily lives.

The charge is ludicrous to anyone who knew her. Even if she were guilty, it was a minor tax dodge, which in many democracies would be a civil matter.

But Roxanna spent four days in a cell, terrified and threatened with 20 years in prison and her life's work lost in scandal. She died at 2:30 a.m., screaming for help, from complications of a perforated ulcer.

"She choked to death on her own blood," her playwright brother, Fred Leo Brown, said in a You Tube video. "She died alone like an animal."

Their 92-year-old mother, he adds, may not survive the shock.

No one, apparently, is being held responsible. The indictment came from Los Angeles. Roxanna was held at Sea-Tac detention center. Few reporters challenged authorities for hard answers. New laws since 9/11 allow prosecutors to act with an impunity that was once unthinkable. Prisons, jammed beyond capacity and often privately outsourced, are opaque. U.S. marshals call their own shots.

Officials can simply stonewall reporters, or organize facts in ways that suit them best. And no one seems to care. Millions watch some guy do a goofy dance on the Web, and he ends up on front pages. Fred Brown's three soul-searing videos totaled a few thousand hits.
As an American abroad, the picture I see from a distance is of a frightened, apathetic nation that is ceding the fundamentals of what made it great.

But this is also personal. I have known Roxanna since she first came to Singapore in the 1970s to study Asian ceramics in between trips to cover the Vietnam War.

After Vietnam, Roxanna lived simply in Thailand. In 1982, I sat with her in a Bangkok clinic after doctors cut off a leg. A tuk-tuk knocked her off her bike, under a truck, and pain had sapped her will to live.

She regained her amused little smile and pursued her passion. As director of Bangkok University's Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum, she fought like a tigress to protect priceless treasures.

Just last year she told a Malaysian newspaper that dealers who falsify authenticity are destroying history.

Roxanna's electronic signature turned up in what assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns in Los Angeles described as a five-year investigation of galleries that overvalue donated Asian art for tax deductions. He told the Seattle Times she was "one of many targets" but was apparently the only one arrested.

In the charge against her, the amount in question was just under $5,000. It seemed -- and this is guesswork -- to be a prosecutor's classic twist: start with small fry and scare them into implicating bigger fish.

Fred Brown insists that someone hijacked his sister's signature. Would she have helped the sort of people she spent her life trying to thwart? Not this woman.

Any 12-year-old can attest to how easily one can manipulate reality in an electronic age when, for convenience sake, facsimile stands in for human presence.

A U.S. Attorney spokeswoman in Seattle told a reporter that Roxanna was considered a flight risk, even though an amputee in bad health, because she had dual citizenship.

Tim Ford, the Brown family's attorney, said in the Seattle Times the arrest "seems beyond overzealous." But he added, "Sadly, the law in the U.S. now gives prosecutors enormous power to arrest and charge and provides for little accountability when that power is abused."
From Paris, I emailed Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor and criminologist who travels the world as an expert witness on legal complexities.

"This is sickening," he replied. "If they denied her bail, then they lumped her in with terrorists, drug kingpins, and serial killers, in a category of people detained 'preventively' -- that is, because someone believes that she is not just a flight risk (bail deals with that) but because she is 'dangerous' and likely to commit horrific crimes that put us all at risk."

And, he stressed, they can do this with impunity.

A letter signed by hundreds of friends, including a former U.S. ambassador, condemns the "cruelty" of Roxanna's incarceration. It notes the irony that this could happen to a tireless defender of ethics in the art trade.

As her family and friends say, nothing will bring her back. But we cannot miss the wider lesson.

Fearful of a vague specter of terror and consumed by workaday lives, we are abandoning what once made us exceptional.

Such outrages pass unnoticed. Newspapers in which I write occasional op-ed pieces politely turned this subject down. We've done stuff like this before, one editor noted.

"The sad truth is that no one seems to care anymore," a visiting lawyer friend from Tucson observed when I briefed him on the case. "We have seen too much of this."

We have, and it is time to act.

It is bad enough that a blameless Afghan chicken farmer can be sent to torture and years of prison in Guantanamo because an anonymous informer covets his land.

Now this is coming home. Roxanna was no suspected terrorist; that was about tax. Her case defines us to ourselves but also to a wider world that is losing its last shreds of regard for a people who once set moral standards.

Roxanna was the exact opposite of any ugly-American caricature. She went out to experience the world, learn its languages, and appreciate its people.

We have entrusted frightening power to a faceless posse of zealots who can detain virtually at whim, leaving hapless people in the hands of indifferent jailors.

This starts at the borders.

Badgered by the New York Times, officials tallied 66 deaths in immigration custody from January 2004 to November 2007 in what the Times called "a patchwork of federal centers, county jails and privately run prisons that has become the nation's fastest-growing form of incarceration."

But it goes far beyond borders and immigrants.

We are not yet Uzbekistan. Court proceedings are public record. We know the names of civil servants; we write their paychecks. Reporters who bother are free to fill in the blanks. Citizens can make themselves heard.

Isn't it time to review what we have lost and put things right again?

As any Law and Order junkie knows, prosecutors call themselves "the People." That is all of us, Roxanna Brown included. If we forget that, our very humanity is lost.
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Mort Rosenblum is editor of the quarterly, Dispatches, and author of Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens our Survival.