"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.
At 30, Rachel, like Darlina, was considerably younger than Brown. And both have accused the doctor of threatening their lives.
On the night of February 22, 2003, Houston police received an emergency call from Rachel saying that Brown told her he was going to kill her.
According to testimony, Rachel and her sister had gone to the Houston Rodeo that night and had had too much to drink. When they returned home in a taxi, Rachel argued with her husband, then the two women took the cab to a gas station to call 911.
Both Brown and Rachel chalked up the night to Rachel having too much to drink, Michael being a bit out of sorts due to sleeping medication, and gross misunderstanding.
"He's a very loving man," Rachel testified. "He's romantic. He's a wonderful man. The best man I've ever met."
Officer David Giannavola said he and other police responded to Brown's Memorial area home that night but were stopped by the closed electric gates until Brown buzzed them in. After taking statements, police escorted Brown to a hotel.
Rachel says she apologized to her husband and let him back in the next day. A few weeks later, she filed for divorce. A few weeks after that, she withdrew it.
While Rachel later dismissed the call to police as unwarranted, Giannavola remained skeptical. He testified that after officers were admitted onto the grounds, he saw a gold Nissan Sentra with smashed windows and a Mercedes-Benz splattered with purple paint. Brown didn't mention the cars to the officers. Giannavola said he suspected Brown was responsible, but had no proof.
The doctor testified that Rachel's sister had just separated from her husband, who had rung the gate buzzer that night. Brown said he didn't let the man in and that when he awoke later that evening, he discovered the vandalized vehicles. He didn't report it to the police because the man was family, Brown testified. Instead, he ignored the mess and went back to bed.
Giannavola was asked by Brown's attorneys if Brown's explanation was plausible. "If three police officers couldn't get in," the witness said, "I don't see how someone else could've gotten in without burglary."
The biggest issue in the trial, of course, was not a trashed car or two, but the allegations of neglect and abuse. Darlina testified in detail that she was an attentive mother who put her children first in her life and cared for them deeply.
For the past three years, Brown had used his supervised weekend visitations to photograph every blemish on the two girls' bodies to build his case. Most troubling was one child's swollen labium -- which Brown's lawyers put on a video display screen. They didn't mention the fact that the picture was taken after an abscess was drained.
One of Brown's expert witnesses was Dr. Margaret McNeese, a pediatrician and child-abuse expert with the University of Texas-Houston Medical School. Based on photographs and partial medical records provided to her by Brown's attorneys, McNeese testified that the children were neglected and had unexplainable injuries. These included five bruises on one child between November 2001 and December 2003. McNeese also testified that she never met or interviewed the children or Darlina.
McNeese also testified that the inflamed labium appeared to be the result of a urinary tract infection, a condition the child's primary physician had never diagnosed. However, the primary physician testified that the girl had several "URIs," or upper-respiratory infections. Darlina's attorneys, David Brown (no relation) and Steve Jackson, believe McNeese misinterpreted "UTI" -- urinary tract infection -- as "URI."
Darlina explained to jurors that an insect bite, not neglect, was responsible for the abscess and later inflammation. The primary physician for the children, Dr. Carl Karr, had dealt with abused children earlier in his career. He testified that there was no indication that Darlina's girls had been molested. And Karr said Darlina was a responsible mother -- that any of the children's medical problems were not caused by neglect.
Brown's lawyers also aimed to prove that Darlina danced topless on at least one occasion at Rick's Cabaret North. James, whose office is in Conroe, contrasted the adult entertainment of Rick's with the conservative environs of Montgomery County, noting that there's "not one naked go-go place in the whole dang county."
James called a patron and a manager of Rick's Cabaret North to testify that they saw Darlina dance topless in early 2002. The patron, salesman Harold Lowe, testified that he had met Darlina once before and that he also was friends with the husband of Brown's office manager.
Darlina testified that she and some friends once had drinks at Rick's, and that they danced -- completely clothed -- on the stage on a lark.
Despite James' attempts to brand Darlina as a promiscuous, godless, bisexual topless dancer whose boyfriends may have sexually abused her daughters, the jury ruled otherwise. In a verdict returned after a day of deliberation, they chose not to give Brown sole custody. Midway through deliberations, they had asked Judge Michael Mayes to provide them with a copy of Rachel Brown's 911 call the night of February 21, 2002.
Because Mayes had ordered the attorneys not to mention any events prior to November 2001, the jury did not hear about the night Brown beat Darlina with the bedpost. They did not see the video of him putting the gun to his head.
Brown says he will appeal the jury's decision, although he has problems beyond the disputed custody of the children.
In response to Brown's plea of no contest to the second-degree felony, the Medical Board of California suspended Brown's license to practice in that state. Board records show he ultimately surrendered that license.
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The plea also prompted the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners to put him on probation in 2002 and order him to undergo periodic drug testing for a year.
The Texas board's records show that, in October 2002, an anonymous caller accused Brown of using masking agents to cover traces of cocaine in his urine. The board ordered Brown to provide a hair specimen, which tested positive for cocaine.
The records show that Brown challenged the results, saying that "any ingestion of this substance could only have been unknowingly." In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Brown said that the drug lab conducted a faulty test and that a judge found the test to show a false positive. The board's findings of fact stated in part that one hair specimen tested positive in 2002, but a urine specimen taken on the same day tested negative.
Documents provided by the board show that, after the series of disputed drug testing, the board revoked his license in late 2002 but issued a stay for ten years.