The chain of evidence that freed Henry McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown after 30 years in North Carolina prisons was a chain of delicate links.
If the man now suspected of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl hadn’t smoked, if an investigator had not stooped to collect a discarded cigarette butt found in the bean field near the victim’s body, if the evidence had not been kept over the decades, if the N.C Innocence Inquiry Commission had not been formed and its staff had not decided to act on Brown’s request to have his case reviewed, if the DNA on the cigarette had not matched Roscoe Artis – a man convicted of a similar rape and murder in the same Red Springs area – the brothers would be still in the prisons they left this week. Henry McCollum would still be on death row. Leon Brown would be serving life.
It is a great thing that these random acts and decisions joined against high odds to free the brothers. But it is also disturbing to consider how close this proof came to never surfacing and how many other people have been wrongly convicted and never redeemed by such rare good fortune. In the United States since 1989, 312 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
The brothers cleared after 30 years are the latest entry on a growing list of reminders that our judicial system can produce the wrong verdict, especially when the defendants are poor, ill-educated and African-American. The brothers, each mentally challenged, also are a profoundly human and persuasive argument for checks and balances in the system, for competent counsel, for safeguards against neglectful investigators and overzealous prosecutors and for the abolition of the death penalty, a penalty based on a constant certainty that does not and cannot exist.
The wrongful convictions of McCollum and Brown serve as an example of a system that can be anything but judicious. Investigators browbeat the two young brothers, McCollum was 19 and Brown 15, into signing confessions that both later denied. Police never pursued charges against two other men implicated in the confessions.
Both brothers originally were sentenced to death, a penalty the Supreme Court has since ruled cannot be imposed on the mentally disabled or minors. And the miscarriage of justice wasn’t only a case of a grandstanding prosecutor working in rural Robeson County. Both convictions were upheld after the state Supreme Court ordered new trials for McCollum and Brown, though a judge threw out Brown’s murder conviction and gave him a life sentence for the rape conviction.
What also emerges from the clearance of the brothers is an indictment of those in North Carolina who continue to press for swifter imposition of the death penalty. One of the Republican-led General Assembly’s first priorities last year was to repeal the Racial Justice Act to expedite executions. The law allowed death row inmates to seek a review of their convictions to see whether racial prejudice – personal or institutional – played a role in their convictions. If racial bias was found, the death sentences could be converted to life in prison without parole.
The Racial Justice Act passed in 2009 brought out shameful tactics from the N.C. Republican Party in the 2010 election. It wrongly accused those who voted for the law as approving the release of convicted killers. Political mailers highlighted the case of McCollum and the terrible details of the 11-year-old girl’s death. But now DNA evidence shows McCollum also was a victim who lost 30 years of his life to a rush to judgment.