Friday, September 05, 2014

Brothers freed after 30 years in jail amid new DNA evidence

Lumberton, North Carolina: Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half-brothers were declared innocent and released on Tuesday by a Robeson County court.

The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man with a history of rape and murder.

The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, now 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential for false, coerced confessions and also of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.

As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a superior court judge, Douglas Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and ordering their release.

"Thank you, Jesus," said Mr McCollum's father as the judge said that the convictions were void. "Thank you, Jesus," he repeated.

The current district attorney, Johnson Britt, did not contest the motion to dismiss the charges and said he would not attempt to reprosecute the men because the state "does not have a case".

Mr McCollum was 19 and Mr Brown was 15 when they were picked up by police in Red Springs, a small town in the southern part of the state, on the night of September 28, 1983. Weeks earlier, the body of Sabrina Buie, who had been raped and suffocated with her underwear, had been discovered in a soybean field.

No physical evidence tied the youths, both African-American as was the victim, to the crime, but someone had apparently cast suspicion on McCollum. After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Mr McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.

"I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me," Mr McCollum told The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home."

After he signed a statement written out in longhand by investigators, he asked, "Can I go home now?" according to an account by his defence lawyers.

Before the night was done, Mr Brown, told that his half-brother Henry had confessed and facing similar threats that he could be executed if he did not cooperate, also signed a confession. Both have subsequently recanted, saying their confessions had been coerced. Oddly, the other two men mentioned in Mr McCollum's confession were never prosecuted.

T The two young defendants were prosecuted by district attorney Joe Freeman Britt, a 1.98 metre, Bible-quoting lawyer who was later profiled by 60 Minutes as the country's "deadliest DA". (He is not related to the current district attorney.)

As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr McCollum's booking photograph on campaign fliers accusing a Democrat of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer.

In 1994, when the US Supreme Court turned down a request for review of the case, Justice Antonin Scalia cited Mr McCollum's crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection.

Justice Harry Blackmun, who was an open opponent of the death penalty and had voted to hear the case, noted that Mr McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that "this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional".

In later years, the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for minors and the execution of the mentally disabled.

Lawyers for the two men from the Centre for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit legal group in North Carolina, began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found near sticks used in the murder.

Recent testing by an independent state agency, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, found a match for the DNA on the cigarette butt - not to either of the imprisoned men, but to Roscoe Artis, who lived only a block from where Miss Buie's body was found and had a history of rape convictions.

Only weeks after the murder of Miss Buie, Artis confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs, a town of fewer than 4000 residents. Artis received a death sentence, later reduced to life, for that crime and remains in prison. Officials have not explained why, despite the similarities in the crimes, they kept their focus on Mr McCollum and Mr Brown even as the men proclaimed their innocence.

The only witness at Tuesday's hearing was Sharon Stellato of the innocence inquiry commission, who under questioning from defence lawyers described the lack of evidence tying the two men to the crime as well as the DNA evidence implicating Artis. The district attorney said he had no evidence to the contrary.

Joe Freeman Britt, the original prosecutor, told The News & Observer last week that he still believed the men were guilty.

Mr McCollum, his hopes raised by the apparent DNA exoneration, reflected on his fate.

"I have never stopped believing that one day I'd be able to walk out that door," he said recently.

"A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything," he said. "I never got a chance to realise those dreams. Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there."

Original report here


(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today. Now hosted on Wordpress. If you cannot access it, go to the MIRROR SITE, where posts appear as well as on the primary site. I have reposted the archives (past posts) for Wicked Thoughts HERE or HERE or here



No comments: