The Innocent on Death Row
DNA evidence has cleared two brothers wrongfully convicted of a 1983 rape and murder in North Carolina.
After sitting on death row for the past thirty years, Henry Lee McCollum finally walked out of Central Prison a free man. Advances in forensic science had linked DNA from another suspect to the rape and murder that McCollum and his half-brother, Leon Brown, had been convicted of committing.
“I just thank God that I’m out of this place,” McCollum, said. “Now I want to eat, I want to sleep, and I want to wake up tomorrow and see that this is real.” This shift in fortune for the brothers provides a striking example of the harm caused by false, coerced police confessions and the power of DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent.
McCollum denied guilt and recanted the earlier confession 226 times.
On September 25, 1983 eleven-year-old Sabrina Buie was reported missing by her father. Her body was found in a nearby soybean field the following day. Within a couple days, a local high school student reported to the police that McCollum was involved in the killing. North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agents and sheriff’s deputies obtained confessions from McCollum and Brown soon after. The high school student had no other information regarding the murder, only stating that “McCollum stared at women.” In October 1983, McCollum and Brown were convicted of murder and sentenced to death even though under questioning by prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt, McCollum denied guilt and recanted the earlier confession 226 times.
In 1988, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Brown and McCollum. In 1991 McCollum was retried and once again convicted and sentenced to death. Brown was retried, convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.
Brown applied to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that examines claims of innocence, in 2009. As part of the resulting inquiry a former death row inmate named Sonny Craig filed an affidavit stating that another inmate, Roscoe Artis, had said many times that Brown and McCollum were innocent. Artis had been convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Joann Brockmann in 1984 , a crime that occurred in the same town and less than a month after the rape and murder of Buie.
Nearly five years later, in July 2014, the Innocence Inquiry Commission received the results of DNA tests which linked Artis to the Buie crime scene. Artis also told commission members that McCollum and Brown were innocent. As a result Superior Court Judge Doug Sasser issued an order on September 2, 2014 declaring the brothers innocent and ordering them freed.
The brothers are both mentally disabled, with IQ scores in the fifties and sixties, and signed the confessions believing they would be allowed to go home afterwards.
McCollum and Brown were nineteen and fifteen years old when they were arrested and interrogated by police in Red Springs, a small town in rural southeastern North Carolina. Both confessed to the crime after lengthy and extensive interrogations by police. They recanted shortly after, but were convicted largely on the basis of the false confessions. No physical evidence connected them to the crime scene.
Both McCollum and Brown have said that they were coerced into confessing. The brothers are both mentally disabled, with IQ scores in the fifties and sixties, and signed the confessions believing they would be allowed to go home afterwards.
McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence, filing various appeals over the decades. Their big break came after the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission became involved in the case and called for reexamination of a cigarette butt that had been collected as physical evidence at the crime scene. The DNA on the cigarette belonged to Roscoe Artis, who lived a block away from where the girl’s body was found. This discovery led to the release order for the brothers.
The brothers’ convictions provide a casebook example of the problems and circumstances that lead to false confessions.
The exonerations of McCollum and Brown mark the 145th and 146th time since 1973 that an individual has been wrongfully sentenced to death and later found innocent in the United States. This case highlights circumstances and system failures that may lead to false arrests and convictions. For example, police that are incentivized to find a suspect quickly in high-profile cases; false confessions elicited after improper questioning; exculpatory evidence that is never turned over; and the prosecution of mentally ill or young suspects who are vulnerable to coercion.
Professor Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law has conducted research on why people confess to crimes they did not commit. In his study of 250 exonerations, Garrett found that forty of the wrongful convictions occurred when innocent individuals confessed to crimes they did not commit. Garrett found that out of the forty individuals who confessed, fourteen were mentally disabled and three or more were mentally ill. Thirteen of the forty were juveniles. All but four were interrogated for longer than three hours at a time.
The brothers’ convictions provide a casebook example of the problems and circumstances that lead to false confessions. The murder took place in Robeson County, an area with a long history of poverty and violent crime. At the time of the crime, racial tension between blacks, whites and Native Americans was ever present in the community. The killing of a little girl had the community on guard, and the police likely felt the pressure to make an arrest.
Once McCollum and Brown were implicated in the murder of Buie, false confessions were not difficult to obtain. With the lack of full understanding for the circumstances, due to their low IQs and young ages, both assumed they would be released if they gave police the confession they wanted. The interrogations and the resulting confessions were made without a recording or lawyers present. These precautions alone would have likely made a difference and prevented the tragedy which was to occur.
“Also, you’ve got some guys who should not have gotten the death penalty. That’s wrong. You got to do something about those guys.”
For death penalty supporters, the horrific rape and murder of the young girl reaffirmed their belief in the use of the death penalty in such cases. In fact, in 2010 the North Carolina Republican Party placed McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers accusing a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime.
When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an unrelated death row case in Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia held up McCollum as an example of someone who deserved the death penalty. In his concurring opinion for Callins v. Collins, Scalia wrote, “For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat…how enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared to that!”
Justice Harry Blackmun responded to Scalia, discussing the flaws in the case and McCollum’s diminished mental capacity. “That our system of capital punishment would single out Buddy McCollum to die for this brutal crime only confirms my conclusion that the death penalty experiment has failed,” he wrote. “Our system of capital punishment simply does not accurately and consistently determine which defendants most ‘deserve’ to die.”
The McCollum case was considered as the worst of the worst—a case that justified support for the death penalty. Now that McCollum and Brown have been found to be innocent, questions have been raised concerning the criminal justice system itself and the risk we take, as a society, of executing individuals for crimes they did not commit.
After being released, McCollum spoke of the 152 men still on death row, calling them his family. “You’ve still got innocent people on North Carolina death row,” he said. “Also, you’ve got some guys who should not have gotten the death penalty. That’s wrong. You got to do something about those guys.”