Barry Saunders

Saunders: An end to Joe Freeman Britt’s brand of justice

District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt during a 1987 case.
District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt during a 1987 case. 1987 News & Observer file photo

You know what’s so lovable about me?

My willingness to admit mistakes, my modesty.

It’s true, of course, as Winston Churchill said about a political rival, that I have “a lot to be modest about.”

So did Joe Freeman Britt, but that never prevented him from marching into the Robeson County Courthouse nearly 50 times with unwavering certitude and emerging only after sending yet another defendant to death row. Whether that defendant was actually guilty or not seemed to be of incidental, if any, concern to Britt.

Britt died last week. He was 80 and at one time was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor. The death-dealing dude delighted in the sobriquet “world’s deadliest D.A.” and the international attention it earned him.

Even more odious than taking pride in such a dubious distinction is the fact that Britt seemed incapable of admitting a courtroom mistake – even when irrefutable DNA evidence proved that he’d sent the wrong man to the death house or to a cell for three decades.

That’s what happened with Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, two teenagers who spent three decades in prison – McCollum spent most of his on death row – after being convicted of a rape and murder in which confessions appeared to have been coerced and evidence hidden. Brown was at the time the youngest person ever sentenced to death.

When DNA evidence revealed that neither man was involved in the 11-year-old victim’s death or rape – and that another man with a history of such crimes was – was Britt aghast at the error, did he rush to fling open their cell doors, did he apologize?

Nah. He said, “No question about it, absolutely they are guilty.”

In the world according to Joe Freeman Britt, DNA evidence is infallible when confirming guilt, but still open to skepticism when proving innocence.

That world seems to be no more in Robeson County, where the only thing the current D.A. appears to have in common with the unlamented – at least by me – Britt is his last name. “His father and my grandfather were first or second cousins,” District Attorney Johnson Britt told me Monday, obviously in no rush to claim close kinship with the man who once held the same office he now holds.

Would you?

When asked whether he thinks some prosecutors are more concerned with gaining convictions than seeing that justice is done, Britt said, “Absolutely. I’m not going to specify who, but some prosecutors get so caught up in the contest of winning. When they do that, he or she loses sight of what their responsibilities are.”

Joe Freeman Britt’s “legacy still pervades this community,” Johnson Britt said. “He was viewed by many as a tough, law-and-order prosecutor. He was viewed by many as being ...” – here, Britt, no doubt trying to honor the dictum of not speaking ill of the dead, searched for just the right, diplomatic word – “abusive.

“My goal, when I became D.A., was to do my job, seek justice, and change the community’s impression of what this office stood for,” Johnson Britt said.

For adopting such an enlightened attitude, Britt was called a derogatory name by Joe Freeman Britt, who also said Johnson Britt had been hanging around with “the wine and cheese crowd too long.”

Yikes. Mark my words. Fawning obituaries of the capital-punishment-crazy D.A. will ignore that, but will note the irrelevancy of his being 6’6” or his commanding courtroom presence.

Despite his height, when it came to seeking justice, not just convictions, though, Joe Freeman Britt was lilliputian.

See if you can get your hands on the “60 Minutes” episode from 1985 on “The Deadliest Prosecutor.” Eat first, though, because you won’t have an appetite after watching Britt lead a seminar instructing D.A.’s from around the country on how to get convictions. “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.”

The prosecutor, he said, should not be afraid to “go after ’em and tear that jugular out” when confronting “adverse witnesses,” he said. In the courtroom, Britt told his D.A. acolytes, “you’re the producer, the director, the actor, the key grip.”

Good Lord in heaven, man. He did know he was dealing with people’s lives and not auditioning for “Matlock,” right?

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1994 turned down McCollum’s and Brown’s request for a new trial, and Justice Antonin Scalia said McCollum’s crime was so vicious that death was warranted. Scalia also wrote in a 2006 case that no innocent person had ever been executed because “If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”

If no innocent people have been executed recently – an unlikely proposition – it isn’t because scary, score-keeping prosecutors such as Joe Freeman Britt didn’t disregard the safeguards meant to guard against it.

The biography of singer Jim Morrison was titled “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” True enough, but, sad to say, some get out without facing justice for their misdeeds – deliberate misdeeds or not.

Yeah, we’re looking at you Joe “Deathrow man” Britt. He was elected a state Superior Court judge after his distinguished, but tarnished, tenure as a prosecutor.

As Joe Freeman Britt sheds his earthly robe, all I can say is, “May you rest uneasily for all eternity, not only for what you did to Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown and who-knows-how-many-others, but for not having the decency to apologize.”

Even a sincere apology wouldn’t have returned to them one second of the years taken from them, but it might have provided a balm to their souls, might’ve let them see that someone acknowledged the injustice done them.

Joe Freeman Britt is dead. Perhaps now Lady Justice can uncover her face.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Joe Freeman Britt had been elected to the state Supreme Court. He was elected a state Superior Court judge.