Commentary, Justice for McCollum and Brown

Justice (finally) for two highlights justice denied to scores of others on death row

The good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation issued the following important statement in the wake of Gov. McCrory’s absurdly-delayed pardon announcement today for Henry McCollum and Leon Brown:

With pardon finally granted, McCrory must address broken death penalty system
McCollum and Brown case exposes flaws that could lead to executing an innocent person

Raleigh, NC –Gov. Pat McCrory granted a pardon of innocence today to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, after a nearly 10-month reinvestigation that confirmed the findings of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, the prosecutor, and the judge in their case. The governor’s action will clear their names and allow them to receive up to $750,000 in state compensation for their wrongful imprisonment.

“We are happy that Henry and Leon will finally get the compensation they deserve, and that their innocence has been officially recognized,” said Ken Rose, a senior attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who represented McCollum for 20 years. “But we cannot stop there. We must reexamine a system that let an innocent man sit on death row for 30 years. How many more innocent people are still awaiting execution? The governor can and should call an official halt to executions in North Carolina until we know the answer to that question.”

Executions have been hold in North Carolina since 2006, pending the results of litigation about the state’s lethal injection protocol, but there is no official moratorium. Executions could restart quickly once the litigation is resolved. McCrory has the power to impose a moratorium.

Since 1999, seven people have been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nationwide, more than 150 death row inmates have been exonerated.

Several other states have recently moved away from the death penalty. Just last week Nebraska became the seventh state in eight years to vote for repeal, and governors in Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon have declared moratoriums on executions.

McCollum was North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. As teenagers, he and Brown, his half brother, were coerced into confessing to the murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Brown was also sentenced to death for the crime, but he was later resentenced to life in prison. Both men are intellectually disabled.

The fact of their innocence did not emerge until the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission started an independent investigation. The commission compelled DNA testing of a cigarette butt left at the crime scene, which proved another man was the true perpetrator. He was a convicted murderer and rapist who lived next door to the crime scene, and who committed an eerily similar crime just three weeks after the murder of Sabrina Buie.

The Innocence Inquiry Commission has so far helped free eight innocent men from North Carolina prisons. However, the commission has the resources to review only a tiny fraction of cases, and generally does not take death penalty cases. It took McCollum’s case only because it was closely tied to that of Leon Brown, who was serving a life sentence.

“It is so hard to figure out the truth in these cases,” said Rose, who represents several N.C. death row inmates. “Many of my clients were tried before modern death penalty reforms, using evidence that wouldn’t even be admissible today. Physical evidence has been lost, or was never gathered in the first place, so it can’t be tested for DNA. Witnesses have died. It was just luck in Henry and Leon’s case that the killer happened to leave a cigarette butt with his DNA at the crime scene.”

Two-thirds of North Carolina’s 149 death row inmates were sentenced more than 15 years ago, before key reforms vastly reduced the number of death sentences imposed in North Carolina. McCollum and Brown were tried before DNA testing was widely used, and before laws requiring confessions to be videotaped and allowing defendants access to all of the state’s evidence in their cases.

“Now that Gov. McCrory has acknowledged the errors in Henry and Leon’s case, it’s impossible to ignore the larger issues,” said Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “People in North Carolina may differ in their views about the death penalty, but surely none of us wants to see an innocent person executed. Gov. McCrory has the power to make sure that doesn’t happen by officially halting executions.”

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