After three decades on North Carolina’s death row, Henry Lee McCollum was declared innocent of the murder of a young girl and released yesterday, along with his half brother, Leon Brown, who was serving a life sentence.
In September 1983, 11-year-old Sabrina Buie’s body was found in a field in Robeson County, North Carolina. She had been raped, beaten with sticks, and suffocated with her own underwear. A local teenager pointed police to 19-year-old Henry McCollum, who had recently moved from New Jersey to the small town of Red Springs with Leon Brown, then 15, because she thought McCollum “didn’t act right.”
No physical evidence tied either boy to the crime, but police interrogated them for hours without a parent or lawyer present. Both are intellectually disabled. The interrogators obtained confessions handwritten by the police that the teens quickly recanted.
They were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, called the country’s “deadliest D.A.” because he won some 50 death sentences during his career, nearly all of which have since been overturned. Both McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. A court overturned their convictions, and after a second trial, McCollum was again sentenced to death; Brown was convicted solely of rape and sentenced to life in prison.
McCollum’s case has been used as political fodder ever since. As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party used McCollum’s booking photo on campaign fliers accusing a local Democratic candidate of being soft on crime.
In 1994, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited the case as justification for the death penalty. In his dissent in Callins v. Collins, Justice Harry Blackmun announced he would no longer “tinker with the machinery of death” because “the inevitability of factual, legal and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.” Scalia responded by reprising the most heinous crimes: “For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable,” he wrote, “a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!”
Justice Scalia voted against review in McCollum’s own case. Justice Blackmun dissented, opining that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional because McCollum has the mental age of a nine-year-old child. “That our system of capital punishment would single out Buddy McCollum to die for this brutal crime only confirms my conclusion that the death penalty experiment has failed,” Blackmun wrote. “Our system of capital punishment simply does not accurately and consistently determine which defendants most ‘deserve’ to die.”
Scalia later insisted in Kansas v. Marsh that there was not “a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”
The 30-year delay in announcing McCollum’s innocence can be traced to prosecutors who illegally hid evidence, including a police request to test a fingerprint found at the crime scene against Roscoe Artis, a suspect who lived a block away from the scene and confessed to a rape and murder that happened within weeks of this crime. The test was not done, and prosecutors never told the defense that police had suspected Artis.
In 2006, the nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation moved to test DNA on a cigarette butt found at the crime scene. The test excluded both McCollum and Brown. But it was not until this summer that testing requested by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that had discovered the fingerprint request, matched the DNA to Artis.
Superior Court Judge Douglass Sasser vacated the convictions of McCollum, now 50, and Brown, now 46, on Tuesday. Current district attorney, Johnson Britt (no relation to the original prosecutor), citing his obligation to “seek justice,” not simply gain convictions, said he would not try to prosecute the men again because the state “does not have a case.”