Commentary

National report highlights troubling career of recently deceased NC prosecutor

Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation has a great post up today on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (cross-posted below) highlighting a new report about the late Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County.

NC “deadliest prosecutor” valued winning over justice, new report shows

By Kristin Collins

Joe Freeman Britt in his heyday

Joe Freeman Britt in his heyday

When Joe Freeman Britt died in April, his local newspaper lauded him as a hero. The paper remembered Britt as a towering ex-prosecutor who won at least 38 death sentences during his 14-year tenure as Robeson County’s elected district attorney. It painted him as a passionate crime fighter whose victorious record and colorful courtroom theatrics earned him national fame — and even a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s deadliest DA.”

However, the obituary failed to mention one crucial piece of Britt’s biography: He was the man who sent Henry McCollum and Leon Brown to death row. Thanks to Britt’s aggressive prosecution, two poor, intellectually disabled teenagers (Brown was just 15!) were sentenced to die and spent more than 30 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. McCollum and Brown were exonerated in 2014.

This week, a more fitting tribute to Britt’s career was published. Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project issued a report detailing the legacies of five of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, and Britt was among them. The report highlights what it calls “personality-driven capital sentencing,” which leads overzealous prosecutors with a flair for courtroom theatrics and a desire for personal fame to pursue death sentences at disproportionate rates.

Britt’s brand of over-zealous prosecution has been practiced by a handful of prosecutors across North Carolina, leading to disproportionate numbers of death sentences in counties such as Forsyth, Cumberland, Johnston, and Robeson. Many of those defendants remain on North Carolina’s bloated death row today.

This personality-driven system means that a death sentence often says less about the severity of the defendant’s crime, than it does about the prosecutor’s enthusiasm and courtroom skills. Personality-driven prosecutions can also lead to wrongful convictions, when prosecutors making winning cases a higher priority than seeking justice.

Britt’s style was summed up in a remark he made to an interviewer from 60 Minutes: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear, ‘Preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.”

During Britt’s tenure, the report found, a defendant in Robeson County was almost 100 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a randomly selected murder defendant in the United States. At one point, one of every 25 people on death row in the United States had been prosecuted by Britt.

Britt often cut corners to win. Appellate courts found that Britt committed misconduct in 14 of his capital cases, the new report shows. His offenses included hiding evidence that might have proven defendants innocent and making inflammatory and improper statements to jurors.

Henry McCollum, moments after his exoneration. ©Jenny Warburg

Henry McCollum, moments after his exoneration. ©Jenny Warburg

Today, Britt is an apt symbol of the death penalty in North Carolina. During his heyday, our state pursued death sentences with abandon, believing that keeping the death chambers full was the only way to protect our citizens from dangerous “super-predators,” a label applied mostly to people of color that has now been exposed as a myth.

Defendants — many poor and mentally ill, rather than the “worst of the worst” — were hustled through capital trials, often with the barest of legal representation. Juries handed down death sentences on cue.

Now, Britt is gone along with the era he represented. Death sentences in North Carolina have slowed to a trickle. In the past decade, only a tiny handful of counties have sent people to death row, and we haven’t executed anyone. The legacy of those bygone days is not one of victory, but of error and waste.

Out of the nearly 40 people Britt sent to death row, only two were executed. Almost all the rest of those excessive and hastily obtained sentences were overturned. Jerry Cummings was the last of Britt’s cases still awaiting execution, and he died of old age just a few days after Britt did.

In the case of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown — and the many other innocent defendants who have been sent to death row by prosecutors hell-bent on winning instead of justice — the legacy is one of outright cruelty. They went to prison as boys and came out aged men, scarred by three decades of trauma in prison.

When they were exonerated by incontrovertible DNA evidence, Britt did not even have the heart to admit his mistake. Instead, he continued to loudly proclaim their guilt. He called the current Robeson district attorney weak for agreeing to their release.

Let’s hope North Carolina’s days of wantonly sending our most vulnerable citizens to death row — sometimes with little regard for the evidence or the law — have died with Britt.

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