A federal appeals court has cleared the way for a civil lawsuit by two North Carolina death-row exonerees to advance to trial, rejecting a claim that police officers who allegedly violated their constitutional rights were immune from liability. On July 31, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a trial court ruling allowing Henry McCollum (pictured, left) and Leon Brown (pictured, right) to sue North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead and Robeson County detectives Joel Garth Locklear and Kenneth Sealey for false arrest, malicious prosecution, deprivation of due process, and municipal liability.

McCollum and Brown, who are half-brothers, were just 19 and 15, respectively, when they were arrested for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled, which made them particularly vulnerable to coercion and manipulation by police. In the suit—which was filed on their behalf in 2015, one year after they were exonerated and released from prison—they allege that the officers “coerced and fabricated [their] confessions, and then, to cover up this wrongdoing, … withheld in bad faith exculpatory evidence that demonstrated [McCollum and Brown’s] innocence and buried pieces of specific evidence indicating that” another suspect, Roscoe Artis, had committed the crime. The case has not yet been heard by a jury because of the officers’ appeal.

Shortly after McCollum and Brown instituted suit, the officers filed a motion to dismiss it on the basis of qualified immunity, a principle that “protects government officials from liability for violations of constitutional rights so long as they could reasonably believe that their conduct did not violate clearly established law.” The district court rejected that argument, holding that, if the facts alleged in their lawsuit were true, the exonerees would be entitled to recover damages from the law-enforcement defendants. The Fourth Circuit agreed, saying “It was beyond debate at the time of the events in this case that [McCollum’s and Brown’s] constitutional rights not to be imprisoned and convicted based on coerced, falsified, and fabricated evidence or confessions, or to have material exculpatory evidence suppressed, were clearly established.” The exonerees, the appeals court said were entitled to a chance to prove any “disputed facts” at trial.

The suit claims that the officers coerced the two men into falsely confessing. McCollum says that the officers told him if he signed a form, they would let him go home. The form was, in fact, a form waiving McCollum’s Miranda rights. As described by the appeals court, the officers interrogating McCollum allegedly “got into his face, hollered at him, … threatened him,” called him racial epithets, and told him they would send him to the gas chamber if he didn’t confess. “McCollum further alleged that the officers told him to sign a paper that said if he could help them in the case as a witness, they would let him go home. McCollum signed the paper—which was actually the confession written out by Snead—but he did not read it and it was not read to him.”

Brown provided a similar account of his interrogation and coerced confession. Describing Brown’s testimony at trial, the circuit court recounted that “Detective Locklear did not advise him of his rights, that Brown asked for his mother when an officer grabbed Brown’s arm, and that Brown (like McCollum) was told he would be taken to the gas chamber if he did not sign the rights waiver. Then, Brown testified that when the officers gave him a piece of paper, he circled ‘no’ on it. According to Brown, that ‘no’ was supposed to indicate that he could not help the officers.” Instead, it indicated that he waived his rights. Of the confession that he signed, Brown said, “Detective Locklear drafted it and told Brown to sign it, which Brown did after an officer told him doing so would ensure his release. Locklear then read the confession to Brown, and Brown told the officers that it was not true. Like his brother, Brown was then placed under arrest.” The officers dispute this account of the interrogations and confessions.

Brown and McCollum also allege that police violated their rights because they “failed to investigate and withheld exculpatory evidence regarding (1) the similarities between the rape and murder of Buie and Artis’s rape and murder of Brockhart; (2) a statement by a potential eyewitness, Mary McLean Richards, that she saw Artis attacking Buie; and (3) the alleged coerced testimony of Brown and McCollum’s friend L.P. Sinclair.” They say that Artis was a suspect before Brown and McCollum were tried. “[O]n October 5, 1984, three days before [Brown and McCollum’s] first trial, investigators submitted Artis’s fingerprints to the SBI for comparison to the latent prints found on the beer can at the Buie crime scene. Artis was listed as a suspect on the fingerprint comparison request. However, the investigators canceled the request that same day, and the fingerprint comparison was never completed.”


Appeals court allows law­suit in 1983 Red Springs killing to move for­ward, Associated Press, July 31, 2019; Gilliam v. Sealey, No. 18 – 1366 (4th Cir. July 302019).