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."