Now Brown is back in jail, this time facing first-degree murder charges in the death of the woman he married 20 years ago, Mamie Caldwell Brown of Charlotte.
"This is just horrible," said Sherry Williams, Mamie Brown's aunt. "From what we could tell, he was sweet and caring. And now this? We are all in shock. How could this happen?"
Brown was in a Mecklenburg County courtroom Monday for a preliminary hearing. The judge ordered the 62-year-old Brown held without bond until a Sept. 26 hearing. A daughter of the victim shouted, "Oh, my God!"
Mamie Brown, 71, was found dead in her apartment last Thursday after police were asked to check on her. Joseph Brown was arrested late Friday at a hotel in Charleston, S.C.
Joseph Brown was convicted and sentenced to death for a 1973 rape and murder in Hillsborough County, Fla. His conviction was reversed in 1986 because of false testimony from a co-defendant.
During a brief hearing in Charlotte, Brown was escorted into a courtroom in handcuffs. Wearing an orange prison jump suit, he glimpsed at his wife's family in the courtroom, but quickly turned away.
Outside, Mamie Brown's family said Brown never hid that he was on death row. In fact, they said, he embraced it.
"He went around talking to groups about it," Williams said. "He even talked to my church about it. He told people what they had to do to stay out of trouble. He was a good motivational speaker. That's how he made a living."
It's unclear whether Brown had an attorney Monday afternoon.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are still investigating Thursday's slaying. District Attorney Bill Stetzer said prosecutors would present the case soon to a grand jury.
Brown's 1974 conviction and death sentence by a Florida jury was for raping and murdering Earlene Treva Barksdale, the owner of a clothing store. He was scheduled for execution Oct. 17, 1983, but a federal judge ordered a stay 15 hours before he was to be put to death. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in early 1986, saying the prosecution knowingly allowed false testimony from a leading witness.
The prosecution decided against retrying Brown and he was released from prison on March 5, 1987.
After his release, Brown took the name Shabaka and frequently spoke out against the injustice and finality of the death penalty, including to a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee in 1993.
Richard Blumenthal, now a U.S. senator from Connecticut, represented Brown on appeal as a volunteer attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was in private practice at the time.
Blumenthal said in 1987 that the Brown case changed his view of the death penalty "because it provided such a dramatic illustration of how the system could be fallible and cause the death of an innocent person."
Blumenthal declined to comment Sunday on his involvement in the case, and did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
After prison, Brown went to the Washington D.C. area where he met his future wife. They got married about 20 years ago and moved to Charlotte about five years ago, family members said.
"We thought they were happy," said Marcus Williams, who is Mamie Brown's cousin.
He said the family didn't worry about Brown's past.
"He didn't seem like a threat. He was upfront about everything. He was always smiling and trying to help people. He was a motivational speaker. He liked to warn people what could happen in the legal system," he said.
Joyce Robbins, another relative, said she stared at Brown in court.
"He had a blank look. I don't know that person. I've never seen him before," she said.
J. Michael Shea, a Tampa attorney who defended Brown on the Florida murder charge, said over the years, they appeared together on television shows and spoke at law schools. He said he talked to Brown by telephone at least each Christmas, and last saw Brown about a decade ago when both appeared on the Jenny Jones syndicated TV talk show to discuss the case.
He said Brown cared about his wife.
"I can recall that he cared a lot about this woman. I mean, he always talked very favorably about her. And usually when I talked to him (on the phone) she was there. I could either hear her say, 'Oh, hello Michael,' in the background or she actually got on the phone or whatever. So it was a real shock that this has happened."
He said Brown was an effective speaker.
"Joe was a good example of why we shouldn't have it," Shea said. "It's a real sad thing that this happened because he was a real champion for the anti-death penalty group."