Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday issued the first two pardons of inmates in North Carolina who were on death row, legally absolving a pair of men whom a judge last year exonerated of murder. The half-brothers had spent three decades in prison.
Death penalty opponents immediately called for a halt to capital punishment in North Carolina, saying the case proves again that innocent people are on death row.
McCrory took more than nine months to decide to grant the pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, which makes them each eligible now to receive $750,000 in compensation from the state. McCollum was the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina’s death row.
The men are half-brothers who have mental disabilities and who, as teenagers, were coerced into confessing to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Robeson County in 1983. Both men were sentenced to death, but Brown was later re-sentenced to life in prison.
Last year, a Superior Court judge threw out their convictions and declared them innocent, with the support of the local district attorney, Johnson Britt. Britt and defense lawyers agreed that DNA evidence surfaced linking someone else to the crimes.
“This has been a comprehensive and thoughtful process during the past nine months,” McCrory said, reading from a prepared statement at a news conference in Raleigh. “Based on the available evidence I’ve reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. It’s the right thing to do.”
Innocence inquiry begun
A jury in 1984 convicted the two men in a horrific attack on the girl, who was raped and killed when her panties were stuffed down her throat with a stick.
Ken Rose, an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, represented McCollum for 20 years. He said he was frustrated that he could never convince anyone that the men were innocent.
Evidence that would prove their innocence didn’t surface until the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission began looking into the case in 2010. The independent commission has the authority to declare people innocent.
After years of investigation, the commission last year compelled DNA testing of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene. The tests led to another man who lived nearby and was serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder.
“If we continue executions,” Rose said, “we are going to be executing some innocent people on death row. There are cases where there is no cigarette butt and yet the person on death row is innocent.
“We are now calling on the governor to halt executions officially in North Carolina and to stop the death machinery in order to assure the public no innocent person is executed in this state.”
Capital punishment has been on hold in North Carolina since 2006, a result mostly of legal challenges to the protocols used in carrying out executions. Republican legislators have been pushing to resume executions.
Advocates from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation are concerned that about two-thirds of the 149 people now on death row were sentenced more than 15 years ago, before today’s more sophisticated forensic tests were widely used.
Before Thursday’s pardons, seven people in North Carolina had been exonerated after receiving death sentences since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But none had been pardoned, a legal action in which the governor can formally declare a defendant innocent. Previously exonerated death row inmates were cleared by juries, prosecutors or judges.
Britt, the Robeson County district attorney, said he welcomed the pardons.
“I think the governor made the right decision,” he said in an interview. “I fully support the action that he’s taken.”
Britt said the pardons aren’t the end of the case.
“We still have an ongoing investigation as to who killed Sabrina Buie,” he said.
But the now-retired D.A. who prosecuted the men, Joe Freeman Britt (no relation to the current district attorney), said there is no question in his mind that the brothers are guilty.
He called McCrory’s pardons “political.”
“He’s up there in Raleigh with that crowd pressing for a pardon,” he said. “We got nobody lobbying; we just got the facts, and he apparently chose to ignore them.”
McCrory’s statement reflected questions about the case.
“It is difficult for anyone to know for certain what happened the night of Sabrina Buie’s murder,” the governor said in his statement. “My deepest sympathies go out to the family of Sabrina Buie for what they have endured.”
Since being freed from prison last year, the men have been living with their sister in Fayetteville, where she has been struggling to pay rent and utilities on her home. The death penalty center established a fund to help them survive.
Because they had been freed by a judge, and not on a declaration of innocence by the Innocence Inquiry Commission, McCollum and Brown could not collect compensation. To do so, they needed a pardon from the governor.
Two bureaucratic steps now remain before the brothers can be paid. Paperwork must first clear the state Industrial Commission and then go to the Office of State Budget and Management for final approval.
The pardons are McCrory’s second and third. He issued a pardon of innocence in 2013 to LaMonte Armstrong, who served nearly 17 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction. Charges were dropped after Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic investigated.
The brothers could not be reached for comment Thursday.
McCrory on Thursday said it took a long time to reach a decision in the brothers’ case.
“We went through a very serious, comprehensive process,” he said, which included a review by his legal staff, a committee and his own interviews with the men.
“I’m not going to be rushed into making an important decision,” McCrory told reporters.
McCrory declined to disclose details of his conversations with the men, other than to say he talked with them separately.
N.C. pardons explained
Pardon of forgiveness: The most frequently requested pardon. Applicants can be forgiven for their crimes, and usually must meet certain conditions for the pardon to remain in effect.
Pardon of innocence: This is only granted for those who were convicted but have had the charges subsequently dismissed, usually a wrongful conviction and a declaration that the person is innocent. This is the type received by Henry McCollum and Leon Brown.
Unconditional pardon: This is usually granted to restore someone's right to own a firearm. It is typically granted without conditions or restrictions.