Reform at last? $75 million verdict should send message to prosecutors, lawmakers

Henry McCollum (left) and Leon Brown

I first met Henry McCollum nearly three decades ago. I was a social worker and he was on death row. Henry was shy and halting and seemed much younger than his years. He and his brother, Leon Brown, were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were sentenced to death in 1984. In horror, Henry had watched his friends marched, one after the other, to the execution chamber. He had attempted suicide. We wrote and visited frequently over the years, and he always insisted he was innocent and that God would free him one day. I believed him, but I had no idea how anyone could prove it.

In 2014, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission produced the DNA evidence that would finally exonerate Henry and Leon of the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. By the time Henry was released, he’d spent more than 30 torturous years imagining his own execution. Forty-two of his friends had been put to death by the state of North Carolina. He still gets overwhelmed when he talks about those years. He still misses his family who live on death row.

I was euphoric two weeks ago when a civil jury returned a verdict ordering the State Bureau of Investigation to pay Henry and Leon $75 million for the wrongful conviction that stole much of their lives. That was in addition to a $9 million settlement that morning with the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department, and $1 million from the town of Red Springs.

I don’t believe this money – or any amount of money – will compensate them for what they lost. But I’m overjoyed that the judgment was so large that it should force law enforcement and prosecutors to take notice.

This may be the largest police misconduct verdict in U.S. history. By comparison, a jury awarded the young men known as the Central Park Five just over $40 million.

Maybe police will think about Henry and Leon the next time they have a vulnerable suspect – a teenager, a person with intellectual disabilities or mental illness, a person of color with no economic power – in an interrogation room. Maybe they won’t call them the n-word, or threaten them with death by lethal gas, or tell them that, if they just go ahead and confess to murder, they’ll be allowed to go home. That was the final lie that persuaded Henry to falsely confess.

Maybe prosecutors will think about Henry and Leon the next time they are handed a capital case with no physical evidence, unreliable witnesses, and an incomplete investigation. Maybe they’ll insist that investigators follow up on other suspects – like the guy who lives next door to the crime scene and committed an eerily similar murder around the same time. Just such a suspect was ignored in Henry’s case until 2014, when the Innocence Commission found his DNA on a cigarette left at the crime scene.

Henry and Leon’s exoneration and pardon of innocence made international headlines in 2014. Yet, unbelievably, their exoneration did not prompt state or national leaders to enact a single reform. North Carolina had spent 30 years trying to execute an innocent man; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had even called out Henry as an example of the type of remorseless killer who justified the existence of the death penalty. Still, no one did anything to ensure that such a mistake could not happen again.

Then, when Henry and Leon brought a civil suit against the officers who coerced their confessions, lawyers for the State Bureau of Investigation had the nerve to stand up in court and – despite the overwhelming evidence of innocence – argue that Henry and Leon were guilty.

It took a jury of ordinary citizens to stand up and say: “Enough.” With their extraordinary verdict, they said that what happened to Henry and Leon was unacceptable and must never happen again. They said if police and prosecutors lie and disregard people’s lives, they will pay for it. They said to Henry and Leon: We believe you.

The night of the verdict Henry told me that, while he was thankful, he was still upset that no one had apologized to him and Leon. I told him I thought the jury was trying to do just that.

Henry and Leon are not alone. 185 innocent people who were sentenced to death in the U.S. were later exonerated. Clearly, we cannot be sure all of those wrongfully convicted were cleared before execution. Recently, evidence emerged that Arkansas almost certainly executed an innocent man in 2017.

That’s why we must go further than paying damages to the exonerated. We need our leaders to act. Police and prosecutors must commit to meaningful reform. And we must end the death penalty, which is the only appropriate response after the realization that a state spent 30 years trying to execute an innocent man.

Gerda Stein is the Director of Public Information and former mitigation specialist at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina. She worked on Henry McCollum’s case for more than 20 years.