DNA Evidence Clears Two Men After 31 Years, Including One Who Was Sentenced To Die
Two men have been released from prison in North Carolina after spending three decades in prison after DNA evidence established that they could not have possibly committed the brutal crime of which they were accused:
LUMBERTON, N.C. — Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released Tuesday by a judge here.
The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.
The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential harm from false, coerced confessions and of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.
As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a Superior Court judge in Robeson County, Douglas B. Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and Mr. McCollum’s death sentence and ordering their release. The courtroom erupted into a standing ovation.
“We waited all these long years for this,” said James McCollum, the father of the man released from death row. “Thank you, Jesus,” he repeated.
The exoneration ends decades of legal and political battles over a case that became notorious in North Carolina and received nationwide discussion, vividly reflecting the country’s fractured views of the death penalty.
The two young defendants were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, the 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting district attorney who was later profiled by “60 Minutes” as the country’s “deadliest D.A.” because he sought the death penalty so often.
For death penalty supporters, the horrifying facts of the girl’s rape and murder only emphasized the justice of applying the ultimate penalty. As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr. McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers that accused a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.
In 1994, when the United States Supreme Court turned down a request to review the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described Mr. McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection. But Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissent, noted that Mr. McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that “this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.”
The exoneration based on DNA evidence was another example of the way tainted convictions have unraveled in recent years because of new technology and legal defense efforts like those of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit legal group in North Carolina that took up the case.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen someone freed from prison after a long period of time due to DNA evidence, of course. Thanks to the good work of groups like The Innocence Project, as well as attorneys working on their own in individual cases, hundreds of people have been freed over recent years as DNA evidence has shown that they could not have possibly committed the crimes of which they were convicted. While at some level, of course, this helps to establish the extent to which DNA and other forms of scientific evidence have made criminal investigation far more accurate and reliable than it used to be, it also points out quite well just how easy it is for someone to be accused and even convicted based on flimsy and unreliable evidence. Eyewitness testimony, even when it isn’t motivated by conscious lying, is often unreliable, and people are often coerced into confessing to crimes that the didn’t commit. Both of those elements were present in this case:
Mr. McCollum was 19 and Mr. Brown was 15 when they were picked up by the police in Red Springs, a town of fewer than 4,000 people in the southern part of the state, on the night of Sept. 28, 1983. The officers were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie, 11, who had been raped and suffocated with her underwear crammed down her throat, her body left in a soybean field.
No physical evidence tied Mr. McCollum or Mr. Brown, both African-American, as was the victim, to the crime. But a local teenager cast suspicion on Mr. McCollum, who with his half brother had recently moved from New Jersey and was considered an outsider.
After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Mr. McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.
“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” Mr. McCollum said in a recent videotaped interview with The News & Observer. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”
After he signed a statement written in longhand by investigators, he asked, “Can I go home now?” according to an account by his defense lawyers.
Before the night was done, Mr. Brown, after being told that his half brother had confessed and facing similar threats that he could be executed if he did not cooperate, also signed a confession. Both men subsequently recanted at trial, saying their confessions had been coerced. The other two men mentioned in Mr. McCollum’s confession were never prosecuted.
Both defendants initially received death sentences for murder. After new trials were ordered by the State Supreme Court, Mr. McCollum was again sentenced to death, while Mr. Brown was convicted only of rape, and his sentence was reduced to life. (In later years, the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for minors and the execution of the mentally disabled.)
Lawyers from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, working with private law firms, began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found near sticks used in the murder.
Recent DNA testing by an independent state agency, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, of evidence gathered in the initial investigation found a match for the DNA on the cigarette butt — not to either of the imprisoned men, but to Roscoe Artis, who lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found and who had a history of convictions for sexual assault.
Only weeks after the murder, in fact, Mr. Artis confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs. Mr. Artis received a death sentence, later reduced to life, for that crime and remains in prison. Officials never explained why, despite the remarkable similarities in the crimes, they kept their focus on Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown even as the men proclaimed their innocence.
So basically what we had here were two young, mentally disabled African American men who ended up being coerced into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit, and who had been fingered as possible by suspect by some unnamed teenager who may or may not have actually seen anything relevant to the case. Even when the police were presented with evidence of someone else who had committed a similar crime just weeks later, they never didn’t go back to determine whether or not the confessions that they had obtained were at all credible. Even when the men were retried a decade later, the evidence was obviously not tested sufficiently to the point where the jury was able to find a reasonable doubt of guilt notwithstanding the fact that there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. Quite obviously, the fact that we are talking about two young African-American men in the South played a large role in this whole affair, but the legacy of wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence in recent years includes men (predominantly) of both races. To a large degree then, what we’re talking about here is as much an example of what can happen in a criminal case when bad police work and overly zealous prosecution combine. The only good thing, I suppose, is that neither of these men was executed given the fact that they had both originally been sentenced to death.
As I said, this isn’t the first time that we’ve seen men who were held in prison for decades for crimes they didn’t commit set free, and it’s unlikely to be the last. Even in today’s era of DNA and other forms of highly accurate forensic testing, it’s still going to happen and we’re not always going to be able to catch it after the fact. In no small part this is because, contrary to what CSI, Law & Order: SVU and all the other police dramas on television might tell you, there are many serious, violent crimes in which that type of evidence simply doesn’t play a role. DNA played a role in this case because the victim was raped and DNA evidence was left behind by the perpetrator. But that’s not always the case, and if there had not been any such evidence in this case these two men would still be sitting in prison for something they didn’t do. Without that DNA evidence, we will still be relying on the same faulty eyewitness testimony and coerced confessions that we’ve seen not just in this case, but in so many others. Until we find a way to make changes in the law and police procedure to make those things less likely, we’re still going to be dealing with the possibility that there are people sitting in prison who are completely innocent.
On a final note, as I’ve said when I’ve written about these types of cases before, it occurs to me that this case stands as yet another powerful argument against the death penalty. Some people will argue that the idea of the state executing people is not morally acceptable, but that is a matter of personal ethics. Others have argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it is inherently “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, although that argument falls apart given the fact that both the Fifth And Fourteenth Amendment concede that the state has the power to deprive someone of their live provided that due process is followed. Leaving those arguments aside, though, it seems fairly obvious that we cannot trust the state with the power of life and death in these cases if the system itself cannot be trusted to get the outcome right. It’s a tragedy when someone spends decades in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, but that tragedy would be amplified if they had been executed for a crime they didn’t commit. Indeed, we already know that the death penalty has resulted in the death of innocent people. Given that fact, why we are continuing with the practice is beyond me.