The exonerations of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were in the news again yesterday as the state, finally and belatedly, got around to agreeing to compensate the men for having ruined their lives.
In case you missed it, however, Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation posted this insightful take on what the exonerations mean for the system as a whole, why there is every reason to believe that there are more McCollums and Browns out there and the lack of action by state leaders to address this outrageous problem.
One year after N.C.’s most shocking exoneration: What have we learned?
By Kristin Collins
One year ago today, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were declared innocent in a Robeson County courtroom. It was a case like North Carolina had never seen before.
McCollum was North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. During the 31 years that preceded their exonerations, the half-brothers had been held up by countless politicians and judges — including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — as examples of the kinds of savage killers who make the death penalty necessary.
Last September, we all realized, three decades too late, that we had been utterly wrong about these two no-longer-young men. Instead of the cold-hearted killers we imagined, they had been scared, intellectually disabled teenagers who were coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit.
They were poor and African Americans living in a deeply segregated county. They were powerless in a justice system that favors the powerful.
Press from all over the world covered the story. It seemed then that our justice system would never be the same.
And yet, a year later, North Carolina has done little to ensure that their story won’t be repeated.
As Gretchen Engel pointed out in her recent op-ed, the N.C. legislature has not proposed a single bill that would help determine if there are more innocent people on death row — even though more than 100 of North Carolina’s 148 death row inmates, like McCollum and Brown, were tried before the enactment of key reforms designed to protect the innocent.
The problems that plagued Henry’s case have not gone away, as we see from the many wrongful prosecutions that continue to today. A recent report showed that North Carolina routinely targets people with the death penalty based on flawed investigations and weak evidence.
What’s more, McCollum and Brown are still waiting on the meager state compensation to which they are entitled for their decades of wrongful imprisonment. (The payment was finally approved today, but has not yet been issued.)
Let’s not forget the lessons we learned one year ago today — about just how wrong our justice system can get it, and how difficult it can be to uncover the truth.