Former Death-Row Prisoners Freed In North Carolina

On September 2, 2014, Leon Brown (above) and Henry McCollum (below) were exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina.

The two men, who are half brothers, had been convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to death in 1984. Brown was 15 at the time of the crime and McCollum was 19. Both men have intellectual disabilities and were interrogated under duress until they confessed to the crime. In 2010, Brown turned to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission for help. The Commission tested DNA evidence from the crime scene, which implicated a man who was convicted of a similar crime. Robeson County Judge Douglas Sasser vacated the men’s convictions and said the evidence indicated their innocence. District Attorney Johnson Britt supported their release and said no further charges will be brought against them.

Observers applaud as Henry McCollum is exon­er­at­ed. Behind Mr. McCollum is I. Beverly Lake, for­mer Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and founder of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.
Leon Brown smiles with his attor­neys as he is exonerated.

“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” said Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, who has represented McCollum for 20 years. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. He would become so distraught he had to be put in isolation. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”

Henry McCollum is embraced as he leaves Central Prison after spend­ing 30 years on death row. (All pho­tos by Jenny Warburg)

Brown’s sentence had previously been reduced to life in prison, but McCollum remained on death row for more than 30 years. Before his release, he had been the longest-serving prisoner on North Carolina’s death row.

Death penalty supporters had long pointed to McCollum’s case as an example of why the United States should have the death penalty. When Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in 1994 in Callins v. Collins that he had concluded the death penalty was unconstitutional and “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,” Justice Antonin Scalia responded by derisively questioning why Blackmun had not selected McCollum’s case as the vehicle for that announcement. Describing the facts of the murder for which McCollum was wrongfully convicted, Justice Scalia wrote: “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” In 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party used the case in a political attack ad, placing McCollum’s mug shot on campaign fliers that accused a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime.