On Tuesday, a North Carolina Superior Court judge exonerated two half-brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, of the 1983 rape and brutal murder of an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie. Judge Douglas Sasser vacated the convictions and McCollum's death sentence, and ordered the two men released immediately. Prison officials returned McCollum and Brown to jail, where they are expected to be processed and released on Wednesday, after nearly 31 years behind bars.
McCollum and Brown, both of whom have IQs in the 50s and 60s, were convicted mainly on the basis of signed confessions they both said were untrue and coerced at their trials. They were cleared thanks to DNA testing of evidence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission did find DNA evidence on a cigarette butt near the crime scene, but it belonged to Roscoe Artis, a convicted sexual predator who lived a block from where Buie's body was found. About a month after Buie's murder, Artis confessed to raping and murdering an 18-year-old, a crime for which he is serving a life sentence.
The murder of Sabrina Buie was so notorious that when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case in 1994, The New York Times recalls, Justice Antonin Scalia used the occasion to cite McCollum as reason to use lethal injection. (Justice Harry Blackmun argued that because McCollum had the intellect of a 9-year-old, "the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.")
The prosecutor who secured McCollum and Brown's convictions, former Robeson Count District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt — who is "listed in Guinness World Records as the 'deadliest prosecutor,' responsible for the most death sentences in the United States," the Raleigh News & Observer notes — stands by his case and said his successor "just threw up his hands and capitulated" by not arguing for McCollum's continued incarceration.
Before his conviction was thrown out, McCollum spoke with the News & Observer about the future. "A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything," he said. "I never got a chance to realize those dreams. Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there." Since McCollum and Brown have spent their entire adult lives in prison, and given their mental impairments, they will almost certainly "face a bewildering and difficult time" out of jail, the News & Observer notes. You can watch McCollum's conversation with the newspaper below. --Peter Weber
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) was confirmed Tuesday as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, following a 96-4 Senate vote.
She is expected to announce her resignation as governor soon, with Lt. Gov Henry McMaster (R) replacing Haley for the final two years of her term. For her new job, Haley will move to New York City and get a pay raise to $187,000 a year, up from $106,078 annually as governor. Catherine Garcia
On Tuesday, the House voted 238-183 in favor of legislation that would prevent the use of federal funding for abortions. If passed, the measure would make the Hyde Amendment — currently a rider routinely added onto annual funding bills that prevents the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in extreme cases — into a permanent law.
The legislation would also "block tax credits for some people and businesses buying abortion coverage under former President Barack Obama's health care law," The Associated Press reported. It does include an exception for instances of rape or incest, or if the mother's life is in jeopardy.
Democrats argue the bill disproportionately affects low-income women. Refinery29 reported that "for the 1 in 6 reproductive-age women who rely on Medicaid for health insurance, the Hyde Amendment keeps them from accessing safe medical care."
The Oscars aren't quite so white this year.
On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the 2017 Academy Awards. In doing so, the Academy also debuted its largest-ever number of black nominees, The New York Times reports. Three films led by black actors — Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences — all scored Best Picture nominations, while six black actors were nominated for lead or supporting roles. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and four black documentarians also secured nominations.
The Oscars have traditionally been dominated by white actors — a controversy that came to a head in 2015, when the nominee line-up triggered the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag calling out the Academy for its not-so-diverse nominations. The hashtag returned in 2016 when things did not sufficiently improve.
After Trump orders several federal agencies not to tweet, Badlands National Park goes on a tweetstorm about climate change
Amid reports President Donald Trump's administration is clamping down on various federal agencies' social media use, Badlands National Park decided to go ahead and tweet about climate change anyway. The official Twitter account of the national park posted several tweets Tuesday afternoon, warning about the growing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean acidity:
Badlands DGAF pic.twitter.com/zdrt2jSqEO
— Colin Jones (@colinjones) January 24, 2017
National Parks News then decided to join the rebellion:
— National Parks News (@NPCA) January 24, 2017
Tweeting about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might not seem all that bold at first glance, but the posts came on the heels of the Trump administration strictly prohibiting employees of the EPA, HHS, USDA, and NIH from posting on social media, talking to reporters, or publishing press releases and blog posts. Trump's administration has also been notoriously hesitant to embrace the reality of climate change.
On top of that, the National Park Service was temporarily banned from Twitter over the weekend for re-tweeting two tweets from its official account on Inauguration Day that were "considered unsympathetic to President Trump," The Washington Post reported. The NPS apologized and promised to stick to sharing "the beauty and history of our national parks" after getting its Twitter privileges back.
Maybe Badlands didn't get the memo — or maybe America's national parks are going rogue. Becca Stanek
Now that President Trump has the nuclear codes in his hands, two Democratic lawmakers are hoping to make it a little harder for him to actually use them. On Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) reintroduced a bill that would prevent Trump from launching a nuclear strike if Congress had not declared war. As it stands now, the president holds the right to launch a preemptive nuclear strike, a policy both Markey and Lieu oppose no matter who the president may be.
Markey and Lieu first tried to introduce this bill in September, after Trump suggested at a presidential debate that he couldn't "take anything off the table" when it came to nuclear weapons, including first strike. But now that Trump has actually been sworn into office, Markey and Lieu say this bill is more pressing than ever.
"It is a frightening reality that the U.S. now has a commander-in-chief who has demonstrated ignorance of the nuclear triad, stated his desire to be 'unpredictable' with nuclear weapons, and as president-elect was making sweeping statements about U.S. nuclear policy over Twitter," Lieu said in a statement. He urged Congress to pass a "system of checks and balances" to be "applied to the potentially civilization-ending threat of nuclear war." Becca Stanek
Democratic senator forces Trump nominee to admit Trump's inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama's
The Senate confirmation hearing for Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) took a rather odd turn Tuesday when Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) proceeded to pull up photographs comparing the inauguration crowds of former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
"Which crowd is larger?" Merkley asked Mulvaney, Trump's nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
"Senator, if you would allow me to give the disclaimer that I'm not really sure how this ties to OMB, I'll be happy to answer your question, which is from that picture it does appear that the [Obama crowd] is bigger than the [Trump crowd]," Mulvaney replied.
Merkley then got to his point: "The president disagreed … he said, 'It's a lie' … The reason I'm raising this is because budget often contains varied deceptions. You and I talked in my office about the 'magic asterisk.' This is an example of where the president's team — on something very simple and straightforward — wants to embrace a fantasy rather than a reality." Watch the full line of inquiry below. Jeva Lange
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 24, 2017
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insists President Trump 'believes' false claims about massive voter fraud
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer doubled down on President Donald Trump's false assertion that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 U.S. election. "The claim, which [Trump] has made before on Twitter, has been judged untrue by numerous fact-checkers," The New York Times wrote of the statement, going as far as to label the accusation a "lie." Trump nevertheless repeated the claim Monday at a reception with congressional leaders.
Spicer was asked directly about voter fraud during his White House press briefing Tuesday, and replied "the president does believe that … based on studies and evidence people have presented to him." Spicer did not elaborate on what those studies are or what the evidence might be. Watch below. Jeva Lange
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) January 24, 2017