Two More Death Row Exonerations

On Tuesday, Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown walked out of a North Carolina prison where they had spent the last 30 years. McCollum, the state’s longest serving death row inmate was freed after DNA connected the crime to someone else. He had been on death row for over three decades – since he was 19 years old. Leon Brown, McCollum’s brother, was also released.

The only evidence tying McCollum and Brown to the crime were coerced confessions that law enforcement obtained from the disabled teens (who, even as adults, have the intellectual ability of children)–the only evidence tying them to the crime. McCollum first told police that he knew nothing about the murder, but at 2 a.m. on Sept. 29, 1983, after five hours of intense interrogation, he signed a confession written by police. Soon after, his younger brother, Brown, also confessed.

McCollum and Brown were originally prosecuted by Robeson County District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, whose nickname “World’s Deadliest DA” was earned after he won nearly 50 death sentences during his 12 year career as chief prosecutor. At that time, there were no laws exempting juveniles or those with intellectual
disabilities from the death penalty.

In 1991, courts granted the brothers new trials because of improper jury instructions. Brown’s murder charge was dismissed, but he was convicted of rape and given a life sentence. McCollum was again convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

In 1994, When the Supreme Court decided not to review a death row case out of Texas, Justice Harry A. Blackmun dissented, arguing the death penalty was cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional.
Scalia responded to Blackmun’s dissent by referencing the McCollum case and arguing that the death penalty was appropriate for the most heinous crimes, “For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat,” Scalia wrote in Collins v. Collins. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!”

Justice Scalia’s “case in point” for the use of the death penalty in the U.S. is now a “case in point,” for why the system cannot be trusted to determine who lives and who dies as McCollum and Brown become the 145th and 146th individuals exonerated and freed from death row nationwide.

Had it not been for unrelated execution delays in the state of North Carolina, these men would likely have already been executed. Read more about these exonerations.

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