The release from prison this week of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two Robeson County half-brothers wrongly incarcerated for 30 years for a rape and murder they did not commit, has made national and international news and reignited the debate over the tragically flawed capital punishment system in North Carolina.
It has also prompted curious reactions from top state officials.
McCollum spent his 30 years behind bars on death row, awaiting his execution for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983. Brown spent 5 years on death row before his sentence was changed to life in prison for the rape after the murder charge was dismissed at a retrial.
The details of the case are simply maddening and recounted best by McCollum’s lawyer Ken Rose in a column in the Washington Post. The evidence against McCollum and Brown, both with mental disabilities, consisted solely of a confession they signed and clearly did not understand. Rose recounts how McCollum believed a promise from authorities that he could go home if he confessed.
There was no physical evidence tying either man to the crime and the State Bureau of Investigation never responded to a request from local police to see if a fingerprint at the scene came from Roscoe Artis, a convicted rapist who lived nearby and who was wanted for a similar rape and murder.
The Innocence Inquiry Commission finally uncovered that request and a subsequent test of a cigarette butt at the crime scene found DNA that belonged to Artis, the actual perpetrator of the horrible crime.
That led to the release of McCollum and Brown this week and prompted stories across the world. But there’s been something missing in North Carolina.
House Speaker Thom Tillis told Think Progress that the case is “an example of how we have protections in our judicial system in North Carolina,” though he did add that he was sorry they were wrongly convicted and it took too long for them to be released.
Governor Pat McCrory issued a statement about the case saying “he was heartened to see the convictions of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown vacated by the court” and that his office has a process in place to review their claims of innocence if they apply.
That’s it. Tillis says the system worked and McCrory is heartened. How compassionate of them.
Tillis presides over a state House that passed legislation this session to restart and speed up executions in North Carolina. That was its express purpose, to execute people faster. During the debate, many lawmakers complained about the lengthy appeals process in capital cases that they said denied real justice.
McCrory is the chief executive of North Carolina. He is in now charge of the state that allowed this to unthinkable injustice to happen. It’s nice that he is prepared to receive a request for a pardon but where’s his outrage about the state he leads taking 30 years of life away from two innocent men?
Where are the calls to investigate how this happened and how we can prevent it from happening again?
And it’s not just McCrory. Where is Attorney General Roy Cooper, the man in charge of the Department of “Justice” in North Carolina? What is he going to do about it?
The title of Rose’s column in the Washington Post was “I just freed an innocent man from death row. And I’m still furious.” Here are the last two paragraphs of what he wrote.
I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.
As I lie awake at night, mulling over the maddening details of this case, I wonder: How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?
How many indeed.
And how can Tillis and McCrory and Cooper not be furious too?