Commentary

Juror on tragedy of wrongfully sentencing man to death: “We got duped by the system”

Henry McCollum

If you missed it, be sure to check out an op-ed that was published in Raleigh’s News & Observer yesterday by Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. In “He spent 30 years in prison. How did jurors get it wrong?” Collins tells the story of interviewing a former juror in the 1983 trial of Henry McCollum who, like the others, wrongfully voted to convict the man and sentence him to death for a crime he did not commit.

“One elderly woman sat with us in her living room, wearing a pink nightgown. ‘I should have followed my conscience,’ she said, her hands shaking. ‘I hope he can forgive me.’ It’s unclear if she’s seeking forgiveness from the innocent man she sent to death row, or God himself.

She believed the Bible’s instruction: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as a juror decades earlier, she voted for a death sentence for Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled teenager who was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County.

The juror put the trial out of her mind until, four years ago this week, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless. After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.”

Collins goes on to explain how the juror in question (and all the others) were denied critical information by prosecutors that they needed to reach a fair verdict, but now expressed great regret at the injustice of which they had been a part. Here’s the powerful conclusion:

“One juror said his biggest regret is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth. If McCollum was on trial, he believed, he’d probably done it.

Like everyone we talked to, his most vivid memories were the photos. At the time, he had a daughter the same age as the victim. When the verdict was announced in the courtroom, he looked at her father. The juror had done what the prosecutor said was right, and he hoped it would ease another father’s pain.

‘I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?’ he said. ‘I feel like we got duped by the system.’

I was in the courtroom for McCollum’s exoneration four years ago. I will never forget the sight of him standing in a cage — the court probably calls it a holding cell — during a break. He stared silently at the floor, powerless against a system that had chained and caged him for his entire adult life.

Now, there is another image that stays with me. A woman sitting in the dim light of her living room, hardly strong enough to rise from her chair, wondering what those 30 years were like for Henry McCollum. Wondering whether God has heard her pleas for forgiveness.”

Click here to read the entire essay.

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