Like most people in North Carolina, I watched last week as an innocent man was released after 30 years on death row. Henry McCollum walked free because DNA evidence found by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission showed that another man was the likely perpetrator in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
Also freed was McCollum’s half-brother, Leon Brown, who was serving a life sentence for the same crime, which McCollum, as a scared 19-year-old, had falsely confessed to.
I am sure many of us had the same thought: What a terrible waste of two lives. As former state auditor, I also can’t help but think: Not only were two innocent men sent to prison for 30 years, but the state spent millions of dollars of its scarce resources to house, feed and provide medical care to men who could have been contributing, productive members of society. But that expense is minor compared with the amount North Carolina spent on the legal fight to execute Henry McCollum. That cost is incalculable.
Capital prosecutions cost millions more than noncapital murder trials, and McCollum’s 1984 trial was just the beginning. As with most death penalty prosecutions, the initial conviction was followed by years of appeals, which go on far longer than those in noncapital cases.
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In the years since he was sentenced to death, McCollum has had attorneys fighting to stop his execution – and prosecutors fighting to make it happen. Countless experts have been hired, and thousands of hours have been spent poring over documents and evidence. As happens in most death penalty cases, taxpayers footed the bill for all his defense and prosecution costs.
Thankfully, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is funded in part by state and federal dollars, took on this case. The commission spent four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars digging up evidence and conducting state-of-the-art biological testing.
I do not argue that any of these steps was unnecessary. If not for every one of them, an innocent man would have been executed.
As a conservative, I believe in swift and sure justice for people who commit crimes. I also believe in a system that is efficient and effective. As Henry McCollum’s case clearly illustrates, our capital punishment system lives up to none of those standards.
This case suggests there are many areas of our justice system needing improvements. One of the first should be to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole and let the worst offenders die in prison. At least then we would be assured that North Carolina never again spends millions in an effort to execute an innocent man.
Les Merritt, state auditor from 2005 to 2009, is a member of North Carolina Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.