Commentary

New report: How NC sentenced two innocent men to death

Henry McCollum listening to evidence of his innocence. Photo by Jenny Warburg / Courtesy of NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

One of the few bright spots on the North Carolina public policy landscape in recent years has been the ongoing hiatus in the application of  the death penalty. It’s been 11 years since the state of North Carolina executed anyone and, happily and not surprisingly, the murder rate has actually declined. In 2007, there were 592 murders in North Carolina. In 2015 (the most recent year for which the state published statistics online), there were 559. meanwhile, the state population grew by almost one-million during that period.

Of course, the hiatus does not yet amount to what is actually required — full and permanent abolition. On this front, many stubborn and ill-informed politicians (see, for example, the very troubled Rep. Justin Burr of Stanly County) cling to the flawed notion that the death penalty can still somehow be imposed in a fair and constitutional way.

Fortunately (if tragically), compelling evidence continues mount that there is no way for the death penalty to be applied fairly — much less constitutionally. The latest  powerful example is a new report from the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation on the tragic case of Henry McCollum. As the release accompanying Saved from the executioner: The unlikely exoneration of Henry McCollum explains:

“Of all the men and women on death row in North Carolina, Henry McCollum’s guilty verdict looked airtight. He had signed a confession full of grisly details. Written in crude and unapologetic language, it told the story of four boys, he among them, raping and suffocating11-year-old Sabrina Buie. His younger brother, Leon Brown, also admitted involvement in the crime. Both were sentenced to death in 1984.

Leon was later resentenced to life in prison. But Henry remained on death row for 30 years and became Exhibit A in the defense of the death penalty. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to continue capital punishment nationwide. During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers, the example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed.

What almost no one saw — not even his top-notch defense attorneys — was that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were innocent. In 2014, both were exonerated by DNA evidence and, in 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted them a rare pardon of innocence.

In a new report, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation — which represented McCollum for the last two decades he spent on death row — tells the story of how two intellectually disabled teenagers were pressured into signing the false confessions that sent them to death row and how they were finally able to prove their innocence.

Henry and Leon’s case is not so much a lesson in how wrongful convictions are uncovered as it is a warning of how easily they can be missed entirely. If not for a complex and unlikely chain of events that unfolded over decades, Henry and Leon would likely have remained in prison for the rest of their lives. Henry might have been executed.”

Let’s hope the new report is widely read and shared. As it notes in the conclusion after describing the years of neglect McCollum’s case received:

“In 2015, Henry got a different kind of mention from the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer cited his exoneration as compelling proof that the death penalty is not just error-prone, but unconstitutional.”

Click here to read the full report.

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