Sen. Leahy Cites North Carolina Exonerations in Calling for Legislaton

In a recent speech in the U.S. Senate calling for the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke about the recent exonerations of two men in North Carolina, citing the importance of DNA testing in their release from prison after 30 years: "The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value," Leahy said, "Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man–should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed." The Act was first passed in 2004 and has provided important assistance to states and local governments in using DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The reauthorization is sponsored by Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The testing in the North Carolina case was funded by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a portion of the Justice for All Act named for the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Read Leahy's statement below.

Sen. Leahy also spoke about the importance of preventing and correcting wrongful convictions, saying, "Justice is the bedrock of our great country. Our Founders understood that a government’s legitimacy is eroded every time an innocent person is sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. They sought to protect against this erosion by enshrining fundamental protections for the accused in our Bill of Rights. And while those protections are critical, they are not fail-safe. We must do more. Lives are in the balance."

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Senate Consideration of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013
September 15, 2014


As a former prosecutor, I have great faith in our criminal justice system and in the men and women who have dedicated their lives to making it work. But I also know that our system is not perfect. Sometimes mistakes are made, and those mistakes have catastrophic consequences. They can mean an innocent person spends his or her life in prison, or worse, is executed.  They mean a guilty person remains free – able to victimize again. When mistakes are made, lives are destroyed.
 
We would like to think that these mistakes are few and far between, but the truth is they happen all too often.  Just this month, two innocent men in North Carolina were exonerated after serving 30 years behind bars for a horrible crime they did not commit. One of those men had been sentenced to death.
 
Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown were teenagers when they were arrested in 1983 for the heinous rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. After being interrogated for hours, these two mentally disabled teens gave false confessions and were ultimately convicted of a crime they did not commit. While these innocent men sat behind bars, the unthinkable happened -- the real offender went on to rape and murder another young girl.
 
These men have lost so much. They were not there when their mother or grandmother died. They have never married or had children. Mr. McCollum had to be placed in isolation every time another inmate was taken to the execution chamber to keep him from harming himself in his distress. It was only this year when a cigarette butt left at the crime scene was finally tested for DNA that their names were cleared and the real perpetrator identified.
 
That critical DNA testing was made possible by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a part of the Innocence Protection Act that I authored more than 14 years ago and which President Bush signed into law as part of the Justice for All Act of 2004. That program was named after a man whom I now call my friend, Kirk Bloodsworth. Kirk was a young man just out of the Marines, when he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for a heinous crime that he did not commit. He was the first person on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
 
Unfortunately, hundreds of others have gone through the same hell Kirk lived. Well over 300 Americans have been exonerated using DNA testing.  How many more innocent Americans have to suffer before we act? The U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., announced last Thursday that he will launch a conviction integrity unit following five recent exonerations. Similar programs exist in Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose and Detroit. This underscores the fact that mistakes happen all too often.  Excoriated
 
We are just beginning to understand the scope of the systemic errors committed by hair and fiber analysts at the FBI crime lab in the 1980s and 1990s. Those errors have called into question the convictions of 2,600 defendants, including 45 on death row. In a separate inquiry involving the same FBI unit, more than 60 death row convictions were potentially tainted by agent misconduct. According to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, three of those defendants were executed before their attorneys were notified. One of them would not have been eligible for the death penalty without the FBI’s flawed work. That should shock our conscience. It is unacceptable. We may have executed an innocent man. I will hold the FBI accountable and demand they take the necessary steps to ensure that such a systemic failure never occurs again. I know Senator Grassley and others share my outrage at this situation.
 
It is against the backdrop of these shocking cases that I come to the floor today and urge the Senate to take swift action. We must reauthorize the Justice for All Act, which includes the post-conviction DNA testing program that is a lifeline to the wrongfully convicted.
 
There is nothing partisan or political about ensuring that we have the right person behind bars. That is why I partnered with Senator Cornyn to introduce this legislation. That is also why the Justice for All Act has the support of the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley, and the Minority Leader, Senator McConnell.
 
Justice is the bedrock of our great country. Our Founders understood that a government’s legitimacy is eroded every time an innocent person is sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. They sought to protect against this erosion by enshrining fundamental protections for the accused in our Bill of Rights. And while those protections are critical, they are not fail-safe. We must do more. Lives are in the balance.
 
The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man –should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed.  It is time for the Senate to pass the Justice for All Reauthorization Act.
 
I will soon seek unanimous consent to pass this legislation.

(P. Leahy, "On Senate Consideration of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013," September 15, 2014). See Innocence and Recent Legislation.