The case of two North Carolina men who spent 30 years in prison — one on death row — for a crime they didn’t commit calls attention once again to the familiar failings in the U.S. justice system that lead to false convictions.
As much as we would like to cheer the release of Henry McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, we can’t help but be sobered by how long they spent behind bars — and how many other innocent people may remain locked up or susceptible to false arrest and imprisonment.
The two men, now 50 and 46, were declared innocent in the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie and freed from prison Sept. 2 by a state judge.
The move came after DNA implicated another man, a known sex offender who lived near the crime scene and is serving life in prison for a similar murder that occurred just weeks after Buie was killed.
The DNA evidence did more than exonerate the men; it laid bare the flimsiness of a case corrupted at every stage by mistakes and misconduct.
No physical evidence ever tied McCollum, then 19, and Brown, 15, to the murder of the young girl.
Prosecutors instead relied on confessions coerced from the two intellectually disabled teenagers after hours of questioning with no lawyer present.
After signing a statement written by investigators with details of the crime, McCollum asked: “Can I go home now?”
Most appalling is that police knew about the sex offender suspect, at one point even requesting that a fingerprint match be undertaken. But this was never done and none of this information was ever shared with the defense.
It’s not a stretch to think there would have been a different outcome if police hadn’t been so quick to settle on suspects to close out this horrific case.
Or if the jury had been told of the existence of a suspect who had confessed to a similar rape and murder nearby.
The ingredients that went into this miscarriage of justice have not been eliminated even today: police and prosecutorial tunnel vision, false confessions resulting from improper questioning, failure to turn over exculpatory evidence and a death penalty appeals system with blinders to critical issues.
Among the obviously needed reforms: Require open file discovery so that defendants can have access to all information; videotape all confessions; establish in every state innocence commissions like that in North Carolina.
Above all else, the fact that an innocent man, McCollum, came so close to execution — Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited the case as an example that clearly called out for a lethal injection — is further reason to abolish the death penalty.