Criminal Justice

As Two Exonerated Men Leave Prison, the Prosecutor Who Put Them There Is Unrepentant

The egregious Joe Freeman Britt.


The New York Times' Richard A. Oppel Jr. looks back at the case of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two North Carolina men who were convicted of rape and murder three decades ago, then exonerated and released last week. As Oppel writes, the convictions

were obtained on the basis of inconsistent, soon recanted, confessions from two mentally impaired teenagers who said they had been coerced to sign statements written by interrogators, and testimony by an informer who previously did not implicate the two….At the same time, a serial sex offender who lived less than 100 yards from the crime scene—and who, a few weeks after that murder, would kill a teenage girl nearby in strikingly similar circumstances—was never pursued as a suspect.

All this has been covered widely, as has the fact that Roscoe Artis—the sex offender who lived nearby—left his DNA on a cigarette found at the crime scene. What makes the Times piece particularly interesting is Oppel's interview with Joe Freeman Britt, the prosecutor who tried the case. Britt seems not just unrepentant, but shameless:

Joe Freeman Britt. You know he's tough, 'cause he smokes a cigar.
Southern Magazine

[Britt] could not understand why much faith is put in DNA evidence, saying Mr. Artis could have dropped the cigarette in the field at a time unrelated to the murder. (At trial, he told jurors that, "lo and behold," butts at the scene were Newports, which he implied were smoked by the other supposed perpetrators described in one of the confessions.)

Nor is he swayed by the argument that the defendants—with I.Q.'s in the 60s and 50s—were too impaired to appreciate the confessions written by investigators that they signed.

"When we tried those cases, every time they would bring in shrinks to talk about how retarded they were," he said. "It went on and on and on, blah-blah-blah."

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  1. I suppose I can understand how a prosecutor might not care about an innocent person going to prison.

    “Innocent of what?”, I might be able to comprehend him asking.

    I cannot understand how a prosecutor might not care about putting an innocent person going to prison while the guilty dude remains at large.

    That’s sociopathy.

    1. Artis was convicted of another crime?the teenager he killed a few weeks later?so he isn’t at large anymore.

      1. Yet the prosecutor remains at large.

      2. I know better than to commit a utopian fallacy that says that if the prosecutor didn’t go after these guys therefore he would have gone after Artis…

        But I can’t help but wonder if the prosecutor doesn’t have a little bit of that blood on his hands.

  2. OF course he is unrepentant. If he had the moral fortitude to face up to the reality that he locked a two probably innocent and most certainly legally innocent (meaning there is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt regardless of the real truth) people for decades, he would have never done the things that put those people in prison in the first place.

    Beyond that, the response is the classic piece of sophistry where every piece of evidence is examined in isolation and then dismissed without considering the surrounding circumstances in their totality. Of course the fact that these guys had low IQ doesn’t in itself make them innocent or make their confessions in valid. When, however, you consider that fact with the complete lack of physical evidence and the physical evidence placing a known child killer at the scene, it becomes pretty obvious they should have never been charged much less convicted.

  3. Convictions are more important than justice.

  4. “When we tried those cases, every time they would bring in shrinks to talk about how retarded they were,” he said. “It went on and on and on, blah-blah-blah.”

    “I needed scalps, and I got them. Stop whining, losers.”

  5. Grade A Asshole

  6. “Well, don’t trust your soul to no backwoods, Southern lawyer.”

    1. ‘Cuz the prosecutor in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands?

  7. This guy obviously knows what he did, and worse, how many other times he did it.

    I think he thinks budging on this now is just going to make it worse somehow when the rest of his crap comes out. I don’t understand that mentality, but I’ve seen it before.

    1. It is simple to understand. It is how mafias and totalitarian states work. Once someone crosses the line and does something truly horrible, they can’t go back because doing so requires facing up to evil they have committed. Admitting he was wrong on this case requires him to face God knows how many other cases where he did the same thing. Very few people are capable of doing that. So most people will choose to live in denial like this guy is doing.

  8. This man is truly a modern day American hero. There will be a monument to his memory on the Mall in DC, some day.

  9. A slimeball lawyer? Imagine that.

    But was there no judge and jury in this case? Did the defense not get an opportunity to lay out their case? Seems to me, if an innocent person is convicted, the defense attorney should be the one getting slammed, since they obviously suck at their job.

    1. From the article:

      Also distressing, he said, were violations of the “Brady rule” requiring that exculpatory information be handed over to the defense. Three days before trial, the Red Springs police sought to test a beer can found at the scene for fingerprints of Mr. Artis and L. P. Sinclair, listing both as suspects. The can had two fingerprints, one from the victim, another from neither Mr. McCollum nor Mr. Brown. But mysteriously, tests for the other two men never were performed.

      None of that was shared with defense lawyers, Johnson Britt said. Nor was the information that Mr. Sinclair, the informer who said Mr. McCollum had admitted killing the girl, had previously said he did not know anything about the murder, and a lie-detector test indicated he was telling the truth.

      1. Brady rule:

        “If the prosecution does not disclose material exculpatory evidence under this rule, and prejudice has ensued, the evidence will be suppressed. The evidence will be suppressed regardless of whether the prosecutor knew the evidence was in his or her possession, or whether or not the prosecutor intentionally or inadvertently withheld the evidence from the defense. The defendant bears the burden of proving that the undisclosed evidence was material, and the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that there would be a difference in the outcome of the trial had the evidence been disclosed by the prosecutor.”

        So what happened? Why was this evidence allowed in court? Obviously, the defense couldn’t show that it was relevant or would have made any difference in the outcome of the case. Since that seems pretty important to me, then again I say, the defense attorney must have sucked at their job, and they should be the one’s getting hounded.

        1. “None of that was shared with defense lawyers,”

          Read that until you understand it.

          1. Then how did the New York Times find out about it?

            1. OMFG…

    2. Seems to me, if an innocent person is convicted, the defense attorney should be the one getting slammed, since they obviously suck at their job.

      I suppose you think Gideon v. Wainwright was a good ruling, too?

      Your legal counsel is not your personal champion. He is there to provide legal advice and to represent you in legal proceedings. If you want to make sure that good counsel is unaffordable for virtually everybody, you could do little better than making your attorney responsible for the verdict.

      1. How about this:

        It’s a competitive system. The attorneys, on both sides, are responsible for winning. If they lose a case they should have won, blame them for that. If you end up with an obviously unjust outcome, blame the jury.

        1. And if one side has exculpatory evidence that they intentionally don’t share?

          Listen, stop posting about this you’re coming off like a stupid asshole.

          1. “And if one side has exculpatory evidence that they intentionally don’t share?”

            Then the defense should get that evidence thrown out.

            1. Yes the “defense should get that thrown out”…

            2. Why would the defense get EXCULPATORY evidence thrown out?

              The dictionary is your friend.

          2. Hey Weigel.

        2. It’s not a “competitive system”, it’s a contrivance. The purpose it is designed to serve is the punishment of crime. The only people responsible for the outcome are the ones running the show. The defendant and the jurors are there by force.

          The defense attorney has no control over the outcome. Making him responsible for the verdict is all but guaranteeing the extinction of defense attorneys. Oh sure, you can find a warm body to fill the seat, but if you just want to put on a show, why don’t we skip the pretense and bring back gladiators?

  10. Like I said the last time, I wish I believed in a Hell, so I’d know that this prosecutor would be suffering there for all eternity.

  11. One can only hope he is caught fucking sheep.

  12. The Romans may have been ahead of us on this one. How about we brand people with ‘LIAR’ on the forehead for extreme prosecutorial misconduct?

    1. I dig it. Of course, that requires a judiciary willing to impose such a penalty.

  13. Also distressing, he said, were violations of the “Brady rule” requiring that exculpatory information be handed over to the defense.

    Yeah, right. And put not one, but two, convictions at risk?

  14. The kangaroo court system is a JOKE. Plain and simple.

  15. This guy, Nifong – man, NC sure can pick ’em. Not that they’re anything unusual in the world of prosecutors, I’m sure.

  16. 30 years (that’s half an adult life) in prison for nothing … and the prosecutor is unmoved and untouched. Put Britts into prison, just for one year, so he can better appreciate what he has done.

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