The Bizarre Unsolved Murder of Harry Dean Stanton's Niece
An interview with Robert G. Lawson, the author of 'Who Killed Betty Gail Brown?: Murder, Mistrial, and Mystery.'
Betty Gail Brown. Images courtesy of University Press of Kentucky.
On October 27, 1961, 19-year-old Kentuckian Betty Gail Brown was found dead in her car, strangled by her own brassiere. The mysterious murder became Kentucky’s most famous cold case.
Brown was your typical girl. She lived in Lexington with her insurance salesman father Hargus Brown and homemaker mother Quincy Stanton Brown (the sister of recently deceased character actor Harry Dean Stanton), while she attended nearby Transylvania University. She was popular on campus, described as likable and attractive by friends, and had no known enemies, which all helped to make her murder even more shocking.
In 1965, an alcoholic drifter named Alex Arnold claimed to have committed the crime. He made his confession while in police custody in Oregon for being intoxicated in public. He gave his statement while suffering from withdrawal symptoms and displaying suicidal tendencies. Despite the initial confession, Arnold eventually recanted his story. He was ultimately freed due to a mistrial.
Ever since that trial, Arnold's attorney Robert G. Lawson has been fascinated with the case. The lawyer saved all the files and notes for years and has used them to write Who Killed Betty Gail Brown?: Murder, Mistrial, and Mystery, out November 24 from University Press of Kentucky. The book explores the aftermath of the unsolved murder, highlighting the need for more scrutiny to be placed on confessions obtained by law enforcement.
I talked to Lawson, who is now a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky College of Law, to find out what it was like serving as Arnold’s court-appointed lawyer and if he thinks the case will ever be solved.
VICE: Why did you decide to write a book on central Kentucky’s most famous cold case?
Robert G. Lawson: I have wanted to write a book about this event for more than 50 years. I was one of the lawyers who defended the only man ever prosecuted for the offense. I got full information about the matter in 1965, and became a law professor shortly after this trial. I’ve intended to write about the story ever since. I retired two-and-a-half years ago and spent all of my time writing the book, which was just published.
How big was this case in 1961?
It just captivated the whole city of Lexington, the whole state of Kentucky. In those days, you didn’t have network television, you didn’t have internet and all that, so most of the publicity that it got was in the newspaper. It was headline news forever whenever it happened, because of the nature of the homicide. She was a very attractive 19-year-old student at Transylvania University here in Lexington. She studied on the campus that night until about midnight, and she left and was never seen alive after that. She was found on the campus, in her car, a little bit after three o’clock in the morning. She had been strangled to death with her own brassiere.
What made it so newsworthy?
I think it was a combination of the uniqueness of the homicide victim—she was not a typical homicide victim at all—and the concessional circumstances under which she was murdered. That’s what attracted the attention, and it just went on and on for weeks and weeks after the homicide—and then it got revived again. They investigated it like crazy for a year and two months but then it sort of died away. They didn’t have any more tips or clues to follow. For two years there wasn’t much on it, and then in 1965, Arnold gave the confession that became the core of the case against him. So it got revived again in ‘65, and the same kind of enormous coverage of it in all of the newspapers here and around here, and that lasted again until the end of the trial, which was at the end of 1965.
What was it like serving as Arnold’s court appointed lawyer?
It was very interesting because I was a really young lawyer. I was brought into the case by a much older lawyer who was appointed, and he had the court name me as co-counsel. I was 27 years old and the defendant, Arnold, was 33. This other lawyer was in his 60s and because of that age differential, I think Arnold identified a little bit more with me. I spent a lot of time with Arnold while he was in jail. He was in jail for almost a year awaiting this trial. I did a lot of the legwork and the investigating work and that kind of thing. It was really interesting and fascinating for me as a young lawyer to have that experience.
Why did the case get thrown out?
There was a four-year period between the time of the attacks and the time of the confession. There wasn’t a lot in the confession that hadn’t been published in the newspaper. Now, the prosecution, and particularly the police officers who took the confession, thought there were some things in the confession that hadn’t been published, and that only somebody who was involved in the murder could have known. They never clearly identified those. I would say the biggest explanation for the decision in the case was the heavy burden of proof that the prosecution had. They had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the case ends up with seven of the 12 jurors voting for acquittal, and five of them voting for conviction. It was just almost a dead heat, I would say. They were able to show that Arnold was in Lexington and close to the location of the homicide. On the night of the homicide, they didn’t have much more than the confession, so they never retried it. They rescheduled it for trial two or three times, but just always pushed it back.
Why did you choose to write the story from the police’s point of view?
There were no transcripts because in those days, they made no tape recordings of cases. You had shorthand—the court reporters took all the occurrence of testimony, and they would never convert that into readable materials unless you had an appeal. Well, you didn’t have an appeal in this case, so there was never any transcript made of the trial. I thought the best way to reconstruct all that was to do it in the way in which it occurred, which involved communications between me and the other lawyer, me and Arnold, and then the prosecution. I reconstructed that from my own memory, the police records, and all of that, so that’s all reconstructed material, which I thought was the best way to tell the story.
I spent about two-and-a-half years writing it. I had lots of papers that I’d kept since the time of the trial. I used them along with lots of personal memories about this, the most interesting experience in my professional life. I obtained all of the police records that had been accumulated over years of investigation of the murder—close to 400 pages—obtained all of the court records generated by the trial, and read hundreds of newspaper articles that had been written about the case. And, of course, I relied heavily on my personal recollection of the events and the trial.
What surprised you most as you wrote the book?
Having been involved in one-half of the historical events covered in the book—the investigation and defense of the only person ever tried for the crime—I obtained most of the story, and all of the important pieces of it, when or shortly after it occurred. My recent research revived some of my memories, but did not add a lot of new information about the murder and trial. My surprise has been the degree of interest shown in the story after the passage of more than 50 years.
What do you want people to come away with after reading the book?
Hopefully, after reading the book, readers would have a better appreciation for the need to exercise caution in judging the guilt of a person who has given a confession of an important crime.
Do you think this case will ever be solved?
If I had to guess, I would say that it will never be solved. It was as aggressively investigated at the time of its occurrence as any murder that ever occurred in Lexington. The investigation started with at least 25 detectives and police officers working around the clock to find evidence of the killer, lasted for two or three years without any solution, was reopened when the man that I helped represent confessed to the killing, and ended as it began, with no clue as to the motive for the killing or the identity of the killer. We are now 56 years since the killing, and the case is still hidden in darkness. I don’t think that is likely to change in the years ahead.
Order a copy of Who Killed Betty Gail Brown?: Murder, Mistrial, and Mystery.