Last updated: March 05. 2014 7:36AM - 3788 Views
Sue Summer For The Observer

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NEWBERRY — After seven years, when will the courts resolve the critical question: who are the heirs of entertainment legend James Brown?

The importance of that question was emphasized by recent pleadings in an appeals case by Newberry resident Adele Pope — and a plea from one of Brown’s DNA-proven granddaughters for education funds.

Granddaughter Ciara Shannon-Pettit and her younger sister are struggling through college, borrowing what they must and working full-time while taking classes. Their mother LaRhonda was one of three women acknowledged as Brown’s children under the “Peeples DNA protocol,” established by the original Brown trustees with assistance from former Judge Rodney Peeples.

Included in Brown’s estate plan was a $2 million Brown Family Education Trust for certain grandchildren, the children of the six children named in Brown’s will.

Even though her mother LaRhonda was not named in the will, in a recent telephone interview Shannon-Petitt said, “I believe we should be included in the education trust… That is the most important thing to my cousins and me. … I don’t believe my grandfather would want his blood grandchildren left out.”

Shannon-Petitt said she thinks her aunts and uncles named in Brown’s will would not oppose education funds for DNA-proven grandchildren. “We have a great relationship with my aunts.”

For many years her mother had been hurt by the Brown family’s rejection, but before LaRhonda’s death in December, she met with her sisters in Georgia — and many wounds were healed, Shannon-Petitt said. “Mom did have peace, and she closed open wounds.”

Only days after LaRhonda’s death, however, an effort was mounted in Aiken County to strip DNA-proven children of their status as heirs.

Former trustee Pope has filed an appeal of orders issued in June that eliminated her from the James Brown estate proceedings in Aiken. In her appeal, she wrote: “On Jan. 6, 2014, the Appointee asked the Court to terminate LaRhonda’s acknowledged heir status on Jan. 8, 2014, even though she had died in December.”

The Appointee, Limited Special Administrator, is Columbia attorney David Sojourner, who was recommended for the position by current trustee Russell Bauknight.

In her pleadings, Pope claims the question of heirs is critically important for the protection of Brown’s education charity, the “I Feel Good” Trust.

In the 2009 settlement deal worked by then Attorney General Henry McMaster, five of the six children named in the will declared themselves to be the only heirs and vowed to “use their best efforts to extinguish any other outstanding interests or claims by any potential heir…” McMaster also stipulated two additional heirs in the settlement deal: Brown’s companion Tomi Rae Hynie was considered his wife and her son was considered Brown’s child.

A determination of whether Hynie is the wife will have an impact on the rights of Brown’s children under the Federal Copyright Act. In a Supreme Court hearing of 2011, Bauknight’s lawyer called this a very valuable right.

Jeff Smith of Newberry, local copyright expert and retired intellectual property attorney, said, “The Federal Copyright Act would look to the State of South Carolina to determine if there really was a spouse at the time of James brown’s death, and, if so, who the spouse was.”

Nationally-recognized copyright lawyer Marc Toberoff, in a September 2013 letter, asserted that Hynie was not Brown’s spouse, her son was not Brown’s son, and that neither had any right to exercise termination rights under the Federal Copyright Act.

Hynie was married to another man in 2001 when she and Brown exchanged vows. After Brown discovered her previous marriage, he felt humiliated and refused to marry her, according to other pleadings.

Gag orders issued in 2008 in Aiken prevent the discussion of Hynie’s diary, but a longtime friend has said the diary offers convincing proof that Hynie was not married to Brown and she knew it. According to the longtime friend, the diary records in Hynie’s own handwriting how she pleaded with Brown to marry her.

Over 50 people have read the diary, but gag orders were issued at the request of Hynie’s attorney, who said releasing the diary would cause “irreparable harm” to his client’s claim. In a 2012 hearing, Attorney General Alan Wilson and current Brown trustee Russell Bauknight asked the Court to continue the enforcement of the gag orders, which have now been in place for six years.

In Pope’s appeal of the June 13 orders that booted her from the Brown proceedings, she claims the question of heirs is critically important for the protection of Brown’s education charity, the “I Feel Good” Trust. Whether Hynie is the wife has consequences related to Brown’s $100 million education charity — and to the rights under the Federal Copyright Act, including the rights of children not named in the will.

Shannon-Petitt pointed out that her mother passed a DNA test, but Hynie’s child after seven years still refuses to be tested under the Peeples DNA protocol.

Original trustee Albert “Buddy” Dallas has said in a sworn statement that James B cannot be Brown’s son. Brown suffered from health problems that would have prevented him from fathering a child — and in the 22 years between Brown’s vasectomy and his death, Hynie’s son is the only child to claim he was fathered by Brown.

In 2008 the Attorney General agreed to “stipulate” Hynie was the wife, even though all the children named in the will have denied their father was married to her. The Attorney General’s settlement, which gave one-quarter of the “I Feel Good” Trust to Hynie, was overturned in May 2013 by the South Carolina Supreme Court as “overreaching” and “unreasonable.”

The filings in the Court of Appeals assert that Bauknight is damaging the “I Feel Good” Trust by not completing the heirs determination — and by promoting the interests of those who have worked to destroy Brown’s charity.

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