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"My first responsibility is to protect my children," says Dr. Michael Brown, tearing up during recent testimony in a Montgomery County court. The 48-year-old hand surgeon dabs his eyes with a pink handkerchief that matches his tie. He's talking about his five- and three-year-old daughters who live with the ex-wife who said he beat her with a broken bedpost four years ago.
"I think they're emotionally abused," he continues in a soft, broken voice. Brown is in court in his effort to gain sole custody of the girls, accusing his third wife, Darlina Brown, of neglect. The girls appear physically -- and possibly sexually -- abused, he says.
Three days into the trial, the jury has seen photos of bumps, bruises and scrapes on the girls. Most disturbing is a close-up of the younger child's swollen, inflamed labium. "Safety of the children has got to be Number One, above everything else," he says.
Many Houstonians may know who this millionaire is without realizing it. He's the guy on the commercial for his Hand Center, cradling a daughter in his lap while he tells prospective patients they'll be treated like family. If Brown updated the commercial, viewers most likely would see a court-appointed supervisor standing in the background: The doctor is not allowed to be alone with the two girls.
Ten feet from him in the courtroom sits Darlina, looking better than on that violent night four years ago. After that evening, Brown pleaded no contest to aggravated assault. He came home drunk and dragged her -- seven months pregnant -- down the stairs by her hair, investigators said. She locked herself in the bathroom of their Woodlands home and dialed 911 while he fired shots through the door. Brown says he was just trying to gain access to the phone to tell police he wasn't trying to kill his wife.
Darlina received more than $5 million in a divorce suit and later sought child support payments as well. Montgomery County District Attorney Mike McDougal says he was prepared to prosecute Brown to the fullest extent of the law on the assault charge. "That was one of the considerations I had: protecting her in spite of herself," he says of Darlina.
However, a prison term for Brown would have cut Darlina off from child support. So both sides agreed that the doctor would plead out and receive deferred adjudication.
Darlina's decision won her an additional $2,500 a month in support. And, she claims, never-ending harassment from Brown.
Michael Glyn Brown is a brilliant man. He gained national renown for inventing a surgical technique for patients suffering carpal tunnel syndrome. He claims to have operated on more than 13,000 patients with hardly any complaints.
He's also a troubled man. Court records and testimony show he's been alternately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and has undergone court-ordered counseling for anger management. When he suspected Darlina of cheating on him toward the end of their marriage, his reaction was to videotape himself waving a bottle of Jack Daniel's and pointing a loaded .45 at his head. (See "The Good Doctor," by Tim Fleck, January 24, 2002.)
Later in the tape, he records a phone call to his estranged wife in which he quotes the Bible: "You wives will submit to your husbands, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church."
This religious theme carried over into the recent custody suit. In addition to calling expert witnesses to testify to the children's apparent neglect and abuse, Brown and his attorneys hammered away at Darlina's moral character.
Brown accused Darlina of dancing topless at Rick's Cabaret North, of drinking excessively with friends at Houston nightclubs, and of frequently letting men into her bed.
With one of Darlina's friends on the stand, Brown attorney Grady James displayed a photo of Darlina with her hand on a girlfriend's rear end at a nightclub -- what appeared to be nothing more than a typical group of male and female friends gathered to pose for the camera. Speaking with a captivating aw-shucks country drawl, he asked, "Is she, like, bisexual or homosexual?"
James even managed to work Jesus Christ into his closing argument as he simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed Brown's history of domestic violence.
"There wasn't but one perfect person on this Earth, and he's been gone for 2,000 years," James said.
Unable to subpoena Jesus, Brown's attorneys called several expert witnesses, to varying levels of success. They got testimony from court-appointed psychologist Jack Ferrell that Brown -- during the supervised visits with his daughters -- appeared to be a loving dad; they also got Ferrell's ultimate recommendation: Leave the kids with Darlina.
Brown presented jurors with the image of a man who had turned his life around and could provide the best possible care for the two little girls.
In 2002, he married Rachel Spaniel in Las Vegas. She had a five-year-old daughter whose father, Rachel would testify, is now in prison. Less than a year ago, she and Brown had a daughter of their own. Rachel sat at Brown's side throughout the seven-day trial and they each testified about a close relationship. It appeared as if Brown's fourth marriage was going to be the one that worked.