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DNA Evidence Clears Two Men After 31 Years, Including One Who Was Sentenced To Die

Death Chamber

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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    Convert ‘em or kill ‘em…oh…wait…never mind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Americans are great believers in revenge. Especially revenge against black men. Whether or not the black male in question is technically “guilty.”

    You can say that both blacks and whites have been cleared by DNA evidence, but the numbers are heavily African-American. As far as American cops, prosecutors and juries are concerned, a black man is automatically guilty.

    This case was cited by Justice Scalia as a place where the death penalty should be applied: two retarded black kids who turned out to be innocent.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 1

  3. Tillman says:

    Of course it was two black guys who’d recently moved here from Jersey. To rural NC. Jesus, that’s a frickin’ trifecta.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    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.

    I think this is correct. One of the problems is that prosecutors all too frequently have political ambitions.
    Here in my state of Oregon the State has officially had the death penalty only two have been executed and they voluntarily gave up their right to further appeals. The current Oregon governor has issued a moratorium on capitol punishment while in office.
    In the last decade or so in this state few prosecutors ask for the death penalty for financial reasons – it’s cheaper to give someone life in prison without the possibility of parole than go through years of litigation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  5. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    This case was cited by Justice Scalia as a place where the death penalty should be applied: two retarded black kids who turned out to be innocent.

    If ever a man doesn’t deserve the honorific “Justice”, it is that man. No one should ever refer to him as “Justice Scalia” again.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 0

  6. Paul L. says:

    Given that fact, why we are continuing with the practice is beyond me.

    Let me help
    Cheshire, Connecticut, home invasion murders
    Unless you believe Mentally ill Social Justice Warriors Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were just part of the poor 99% getting payback against the rich 1% Petit family and will be cleared in the future.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 28

  7. Scott says:

    It also has been shown that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Combined with prosecutors and other state actors misbehaving, it is clear to me that that death penalty needs to be taken off the table.

    If just one person is erroneously put to death, that is one too many.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  8. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Paul L.:

    So your argument that the state should be allowed to execute people, even when there is absolute evidence that multiple innocent people have been executed is “Well, there’s bad people in the world, so we’ve GOTS to keep killing inmates.”

    Do I have that about right?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 1

  9. Another Mike says:

    @stonetools:

    If ever a man doesn’t deserve the honorific “Justice”, it is that man. No one should ever refer to him as “Justice Scalia” again.

    This judgment seems a little harsh, unless, of course, one believes that supreme court justices are omniscient, and thus Scalia had to have known at the time that he wrote the remark that the findings of the court and the jury were false.

    “For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.”

    It seems that it was only one man, not four, and any supreme court justice should have know that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  10. john says:

    “It also has been shown that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. ”

    But I thought it was incontrovertible that Michael Brown was shot in the back, with his hands up, running away, because of eyewitness accounts.

    You can never rely on eyewitness accounts. For anything.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 17

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @Tillman:
    Apparently the case was also used to smear political opponents by NC Republicans.

    The target of the mailing was the then-majority leader of the state General Assembly, Democrat Hugh Holliman. The state GOP was desperate to unseat him in its effort to take control of the legislature. The party proceeded to show just how low a Dixie Republican can go.
    “Thanks to Hugh Holliman, death row inmates could leave prison early and move in next door,” the leaflet said. “Meet your new neighbors…You’re not going to like them very much.”
    Beside the mug shot of McCollum was one of a man named Wayne Laws. The leaflet announced:
    “Meet Wayne Laws. He brutally MURDERED TWO PEOPLE. And get to know Henry McCollum. He RAPED AND MURDERED AN 11 YEAR OLD CHILD. Both are on Death Row today.”
    The leaflet went on:
    “But thanks to ultra-liberal Hugh Holliman, they might be moving out of jail and into Your neighborhood sometime soon.”

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/04/how-the-north-carolina-gop-made-a-wrongfully-convicted-man-a-death-row-scapegoat.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @john:

    What Scalia should know is that the legal system is highly fallible, particularly so with black defendants. He is nevertheless unwilling to question the death penalty, deaf to appeals, and very willing to continue sending wrongly convicted men to death row. No omniscience required, just a conscience.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 0

  13. Paul L. says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    I believe that the Death penalty should be like the Democrat claim abortion is. Safe legal and rare.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 11

  14. Rafer Janders says:

    @Another Mike:

    This judgment seems a little harsh, unless, of course, one believes that supreme court justices are omniscient, and thus Scalia had to have known at the time that he wrote the remark that the findings of the court and the jury were false.

    Scalia should certainly have known that they COULD have been false.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  15. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Paul L.:

    And yet it only has one of those–legal. So where is your argument for perpetuating a system that regularly executes innocent people?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  16. george says:

    eaving 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.

    This is the part that always gets me. How do conservatives, who typically don’t trust the government to do anything right (even relatively trivial things like regulating industry), justify trusting the government in the single biggest thing of all – taking a citizen’s life?

    The typical response is that its a jury, not the government, but that doesn’t work, since the whole police/prosecution is government run, and they would not trust a jury system to say run the EPA. I’ve yet to hear a good justification for it. It makes me think they’re not serious about small government (taking citizen’s life is as big as government gets).

    Unless they’re going by Bismarck’s rule that its better to hang ten innocents than let one guilty man go free?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  17. michael reynolds says:

    It’s not hard to understand why conservatives love capital punishment – in direct conflict with their supposed philosophy. Scroll down this page.

    Blacks are disproportionately affected and the secondary effect of that is that what most people see when they picture an execution is a black male being executed. This image makes the idea acceptable to most conservatives and downright attractive to some.

    Like gay marriage, like marijuana legalization, capital punishment is one of these issues where conservatives simply have no grounding in logic, and no consistency with regard to their own “philosophy.” It’s why I use scare quotes when I talk about conservative philosophy, because it’s about 90% greed, fear and hate and only 10% systematic thought. Actual right-wing philosophy boils down to 1) Gimme more, 2) I fear and hate anything different. The rest of their belief system is bunting they tape to this underlying emotional structure. The inconsistency is only with the bunting, they are perfectly consistent with the underlying truth of conservatism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  18. 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.

    I’m basically at the point that I don’t trust eyewitness testimony unless the eyewitness actually knew the person they’re identifying prior to the incident. i.e. if the cops say, “did you see who robbed the bank” and the eye witness goes, “yeah, it was my neighbor, Joe”, then I’ll believe it. But if they’re trying to describe a stranger, there’s just no reliability that their memory is anything like what actually happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  19. C. Clavin says:

    Breaking…
    Virginia ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) found guilty of eleven corruption charges.
    The crazy-wife defense apparently didn’t work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  20. Problem with eye witnesses:

    Experimental Psychology – Change Blindness

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Yikes. They’ll have to give him some jail time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. stonetools says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    And yet it only has one of those–legal. So where is your argument for perpetuating a system that regularly executes innocent people?

    You see, most of those innocent people executed are black. Just about all of them are poor. So, no problem. It’s not like they were executing actual humans.
    That’s conservative thinking in a nutshell.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  23. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    He was offered an incredibly lenient deal early on, and refused it.
    Is he going to jail during appeal? Probably not. That’s for “the other’s”. I’d be happy if they gave him a trans-vaginal ultrasound.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  24. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Wow, not often a rich, white man gets convicted. Good for the jury. I guess it’s a victory for chivalry as well. Throwing the wife under the bus didn’t work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  25. Another Mike says:

    @michael reynolds:

    This image makes the idea acceptable to most conservatives and downright attractive to some.

    Your whole post is just liberal claptrap and assorted rubbish dumped out of your extremely bigoted mind. There is no argument there. It just a bunch of biased accusations and illusions based upon nothing but a twisted mind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 14

  26. C. Clavin says:

    @Another Mike:
    Well…that…and the real world outside of Fox News.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  27. Another Mike says:

    @Rafer Janders: @Rafer Janders:

    Scalia should certainly have known that they COULD have been false.

    Well, since you put it that way, I suppose he should have known that everyone adjudged guilty is not really guilty. Most people who pay attention nowadays know that.

    Scalia used the crime as an example of a case that justified the death penalty. We know now that those convicted of this crime where innocent.

    I am a supporter of the death penalty, but I question now whether our justice system is good enough to allow the death penalty.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Another Mike:

    I am a supporter of the death penalty, but I question now whether our justice system is good enough to allow the death penalty.

    What more evidence do you need to decide that it isn’t? Seriously, what would persuade you that we are not capable of administering this sentence in a fair and just manner?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john: And I have to say, why all the down votes on this? He is just extrapolating the fact that eyewitness testimony is highly inaccurate. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    ps: the fact that MB was shot in the front of his body is NOT proof he was charging the vehicle when shot, he might have been backing away. Again, we do NOT have the facts yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. george says:

    @Another Mike:

    I am a supporter of the death penalty, but I question now whether our justice system is good enough to allow the death penalty.

    I think there are a lot of people who aren’t against the death penalty in principle, but who are against it in practice for that simple reason – there’s no guarantee that a mistake won’t be made. And its the kind of mistake that can’t be taken back.

    Allowing capital punishment requires a huge amount of faith in government (not to mention witness testimony etc). That, or a willingness to kill innocents out of convenience.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  31. Another Mike says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Seriously, what would persuade you that we are not capable of administering this sentence in a fair and just manner?

    I think that human beings are capable of administering the death sentence in a fair and just manner. I question though whether we are in fact doing that now in this country. The problem goes way beyond the death penalty. The thought of spending even one night in jail for a crime I didn’t commit is chilling. It is way too easy to prosecute and convict people of crimes they didn’t do,

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. Rafer Janders says:

    @Another Mike:

    Well, since you put it that way, I suppose he should have known that everyone adjudged guilty is not really guilty.

    Punch that strawman! Punch ‘im good!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  33. Rafer Janders says:

    @Another Mike:

    I think that human beings are capable of administering the death sentence in a fair and just manner.

    Anyone who would be actually capable of administering a death sentence in a fair and just manner would have to be so fair and just that she wouldn’t want to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Another Mike:

    I think that human beings are capable of administering the death sentence in a fair and just manner.

    Ok MIke, and I don’t mean to pick on you, just asking an honest question, but what makes you think that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  35. Tony W says:

    @Another Mike: The government is incompetent – but should absolutely be allowed to kill people. Do I have it right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  36. KM says:

    @michael reynolds: This image makes the idea acceptable to most conservatives and downright attractive to some.

    @Another Mike:Your whole post is just liberal claptrap and assorted rubbish dumped out of your extremely bigoted mind.

    I can’t speak for Micheal or the average con/liberal but I will point out that it is an extremely common psychological fallacy on the part of humanity in general to “not get it” when the affected individual doesn’t align with their own perceptions. That’s where the whole “That could have been me!” startled response comes from – the sudden epiphany that whatever mental divisions you created so they were THEY and you are YOU mean @&#*&$* in the real world. See the change of heart that happens when when a homophobe’s beloved child comes out, the 7 day-a-week gluttonous couch-potato when a peer (or younger) dies of a heart attack, the drunk lightly buzzed like you driver hits and kills someone you love. Humans are very very bad at placing themselves in mentally uncomfortable circumstances and realizing a simple truth -“There but for the Grace of God” until it’s shoved in their face.

    So when the face you keep seeing doesn’t look like you, when the story you hear over and over isn’t yours, when circumstances mean it won’t most likely be you…. it becomes academic. A million is a statistic, after all. But when they come for you? Railroad you, lie about you to the world, lock you away for decades, grimly promise an execution you did nothing to deserve with no way out? That’s the stuff the big-gov nightmares – the great Tyranny and Horror we should all fear spelled out stark in an innocent’s blood. That it’s not hitting them right in the feels is…. problematic for some pretty obvious reasons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  37. george says:

    @Tony W:

    The government is incompetent – but should absolutely be allowed to kill people. Do I have it right?

    That sums up the problem much better than I put it. But don’t expect an answer – its hard to avoid Michael Reynold’s conclusion that the main reason they’re so comfortable with this contradiction in their principal of small government is that the people getting killed by the gov’t are black and so don’t count.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0