Convictions for N.C. men overturned: why there's been uptick in exonerations

On Tuesday, a North Carolina judge exonerated Henry McCollum and Leon Brown of the 1983 rape and murder of a young girl. By one count, more than 1,300 convicts have been exonerated in the past 25 years.

Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer/AP
Geraldine Brown, sister of Leon Brown, celebrates outside a Robeson County courtroom where her brothers were declared innocent Tuesday of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983.

After spending 30 years in jail for a crime they did not commit, two half brothers – both considered mentally challenged – will taste freedom for the first time in their adult lives.

On Tuesday, a North Carolina Superior Court judge exonerated Henry McCollum and Leon Brown of the 1983 rape and murder of a young girl, based on recent DNA analysis of evidence. Mr. McCollum had spent three decades on death row, and Mr. Brown was serving a life sentence.

Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the previous convictions after DNA analysis of a cigarette butt found near sticks used in the murder proved to belong not to either brother, but instead to another man who lived on the same block as the murder and was later convicted of assaulting three other women. 

The new evidence was so compelling that Robeson County district attorney Johnson Britt recommended that the convictions for the brothers be reversed.

“The evidence you heard today in my opinion negates the evidence presented at trial,” Mr. Britt said in a closing statement before the judge announced his decision. He was not involved with the prosecution of the men.

The men's families erupted in cheers as the judge announced his decision.

"We waited years and years," said James McCollum, Henry McCollum's father. "We kept the faith."

McCollum and Brown were required to return to their prison cells after Tuesday's proceedings until paperwork could be processed. McCollum was released Wednesday, and according to Keith Acree, spokesman for the state prison system, Brown was also expected to be released that day.

The two brothers were teenagers when the brutalized body of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was found in a soybean field in the tiny town of Red Springs, N.C. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15. Both confessed to the crime, but family members, defense attorneys, and exoneration advocates have long argued that those statements were coerced and that the two men were not mentally capable of fully understanding the implications of their statements.

McCollum recounted his interrogation by police in a recent video interview with The News & Observer.

“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” he told the Raleigh-based paper. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”

In the past 25 years, more than 1,300 convicts have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were wrongfully convicted, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a database maintained by law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. Last year alone, 87 individuals were found to have been wrongfully convicted, a peak since the database began in 1989.

While the availability of new DNA analysis techniques has played a role in dozens of exonerations – as was the case with the two brothers – the uptick appears to be largely fueled by a shifting legal climate in the United States, in which law enforcement officials are investing more resources in reviewing old cases, Elizabeth Barber reported for the Monitor earlier this year. In many cases, she wrote, that means that prosecutors are turning the microscope on their predecessors:

During the past 25 years, almost 60 percent of the wrongful convictions for homicide in the US are associated with official misconduct, according to data from [a National Registry of Exonerations report]. Moreover, 17 percent of those exonerated originally pleaded guilty. In most cases, the defendant had accepted a plea bargain for a reduced sentence. In other incidents, the exonerated convict had been a victim of coercive interrogation techniques.

In December, the International Association of Chiefs of Police teamed up with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project, an advocacy group dedicated to the exoneration of wrongfully convicted individuals, to urge police departments to adopt new guidelines for witness identification, interrogation, and statement corroboration in an effort to reduce the number of wrongful convictions, The Washington Post reported.

In California, lawmakers have crafted a pair of bills aimed at preventing wrongful convictions.

One bill would require law enforcement officials to alert defendants when they obtain evidence that could be tested for DNA and would allow judges to order that such DNA evidence be processed through the FBI’s nationwide database.

The second bill would open the door for judges to instruct a jury to consider evidence omitted by the prosecution that could potentially lead to reasonable doubt.

Both bills have passed through the California Legislature and are currently awaiting review by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

 This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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