Civil Liberties

Mentally-Disabled Men Sent to Death Row 30 Years Ago By World's "Deadliest Prosecutor" Found Innocent


Two North Carolina men who were convicted of the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983 were exonerated yesterday after new DNA evidence proved their innocence. 

The men, Henry Lee "Buddy" McCollum and Leon Brown, are stepbrothers. McCollum, 19 at the time of the crime, was sentenced to death and spent 30 years on North Carolina's death row, making him one of the longest serving death row prisoners in the state. Brown, 15 at the time of the crime, was also sentenced to death but was later retried and sentenced to life in prison. Both men are considered mentally disabled—McCollum's IQ is between 60 and 69 and Brown's IQ is 49.

Recent DNA testing of a cigarette butt found near the scene of the crime implicated convicted rapist and murderer Roscoe Artis, who lived a few hundred feet from the field where the body of the 11-year-old victim, Sabrina Buie, was found. Artis is currently on death row in North Carolina for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Joann Brockmann—a crime he committed less than a month after McCollum and Brown were arrested. Despite the fact that both murders were carried out in a similar way (both girls were raped, asphyxiated, and left in fields), within a month of one another, and in a town of roughly 4,000 people, Artis was never even considered as a suspect in the Buie murder.

No physical or forensic evidence tied either McCollum or Brown to the crime. Instead, their convictions were largely based on confessions written by police, which the men signed. In a recent video interview with Raleigh's The News & Observer, McCollum said, "I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home."

According to the Innocence Project, roughly 30 percent of defendants exonerated by DNA evidence gave false confessions, falsely incriminated themselves, or pled guilty to crimes they did not commit.

Both men later recanted their confessions and said they were coerced. At his trial, McCollum recanted his confession 226 times.

The prosecutor on the case, Joe Freeman Britt, who was once listed in Guinness World Records as the "deadliest prosecutor" after winning 46 death row cases. Known for his theatrics in court, Britt famously held the courtroom in a silence for five minutes during McCollum and Brown's trial to emphasize how long it took Buie to suffocate.

World's "Deadliest Prosecutor"

McCollum and Brown's innocence was proven only after the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency established in 2006 "to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of factual innocence," decided to take on their cases.

Before then, McCollum and Brown's guilt was never questioned. Indeed, McCollum was even used as an example by United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to justify the death penalty. In 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party sent around campaign mailers containing McCollum's mug shot before the state's general election, attacking state Democrat's support for the Racial Justice Act.

Now retired, Britt told The News Observer last Friday he still has no doubts over the men's guilt. "You find a cigarette, you say it has Roscoe Artis' DNA on it, but so what? It's just a cigarette, and absent some direct connection to the actual killing, what have you got? Do you have exoneration? I don't think so," said the man whose prosecution relied solely on confessions written by police and signed by mentally disabled teenagers.

Defense attorneys say McCollum was the last person prosecuted by the "deadliest prosecutor" who remained on death row.

According to The New York Times, McCollum and Brown's release from prison "provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential harm from false, coerced confessions and of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent." I'd go a step further and argue their innocence (or at least McCollum's) demonstrates, once again, just how broken the death penalty is in the United States. Isn't it time for it to just die already?