Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, were set free last week after both spent time on death row for a gruesome 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl they didn’t commit. If they had been executed, their exoneration would have been honorific.
A cigarette found at the scene of the crime has implicated a man who lived a block from the field where the girl’s body was found. He is serving a life sentence for another rape and murder that occurred a month later.
What makes the story even sadder is that half-brothers McCollum and Brown are both mentally challenged, with double-digit IQs. They are black. And McCollum’s conviction has been exalted as a raison d’être for the death penalty.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has pointed to McCollum as the kind of murderer who deserved to be executed.
McCollum and Brown were convicted in large part because they confessed. The then-teenagers were grilled for five hours as police interrogators walked through the brutal details of the rape-murder. The boys finally agreed to sign confessions when they were told they could go home if they did. You can imagine their surprise and disappointment when they learned their confession would shane their home address to death row.
In the years since then, McCollum and Brown recanted their confessions. McCollum recanted his confession 226 times while spending 30 years waiting to be executed.
There was no physical evidence linking McCollum and Brown to the crime. One witness testified that she thought McCollum was involved because he rode around on his bicycle and stared at girls.
The death sentences for McCollum and Brown were put aside and they faced a second trial where McCollum’s death sentence was reinstated, while Brown was given a life sentence.
As recently as 2010, political candidates in North Carolina used pictures of McCollum to attack opponents they labeled as “soft on crime.”
The Bible-thumping prosecutor who won the convictions of McCollum and Brown told reporters last week he still thinks they are guilty. This is the same prosecutor who withheld from defense lawyers exculpatory evidence that police had hidden, including beer can found at the scene with no fingerprints by McCollum or Brown.
One piece of evidence found next to the girl’s dead body turned out to be the clue to the real killer. A cigarette butt was tested for DNA. It showed nothing linked to McCollum and Brown, but implicated a convicted rapist and murderer who lived a block away, a man whom police never interviewed.
Justice Scalia’s reference to the case came in the high court’s deliberation in Collins v. Collins. Responding to Justice Harry Blackmun’s comment that he no longer would “tinker with the machinery of death,” Scalia ridiculed Blackmun’s opposition to the death penalty by pointing to McCollum.
“For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat,” Scalia wrote. “How enviable, a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!”
Later, McCollum’s murder conviction appeal made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Scalia voted not to hear it. Blackmun again objected, noting “Buddy McCollum is mentally retarded. He has an IQ between 60 and 69 and the mental age of a 9-year old. He reads on a second grade level. This factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in his case is unconstitutional.”
The evidence that led to the exoneration of McCollum and Brown was vetted by North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. This unique arm of justice, in effect, did the job the police and prosecutor should have done 30 years earlier.
When he was released, McCollum had become the longest serving prisoner on death row in North Carolina. The bigger question is whether he was the only innocent man on death row in North Carolina or any other place.
Scalia’s answer: “[T]his court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial, but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”
Reasonable people can disagree on the death penalty. But it is hard to argue stolen lives from men such as McCollum and Brown are justified by sloppy justice.