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  • Human Fallibility    September 3 
DNA evidence clears a North Carolina inmate Justice Scalia cited to support the death penalty

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

 
 
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