According to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Henry Lee McCollum deserved to die for the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. There’s just one problem, and a frequent one in death penalty cases: Henry Lee McCollum didn’t do it.
Instead of tracking down the true killer, police and prosecutors went after Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled and innocent teenagers. While his mother wept in the hallway, not allowed to see her son, officers interrogated McCollum for five hours, ultimately coercing him to sign a confession they had written. In a trial without forensic evidence and plagued by racial bias, these two half-brothers with IQs in the 50s and 60s were sent to death row. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, whose sentence was later reduced to life in prison, have been behind bars for the last 30 years.
Last week, they were finally exonerated in another disturbing example of how deeply flawed the death penalty is, particularly for African-American men in the South.
Death penalty supporters have long cast Henry Lee McCollum as a mythic boogeyman. After North Carolinians passed the Racial Justice Act, a law outlawing racial bias in capital cases, opponents of the law mailed sensationalized fliers showing McCollum’s mug shot, claiming it would lead to the release of convicted killers like him. Justice Scalia depicted McCollum as a strong argument against death penalty abolition because of the gruesomeness of Sabrina Buie’s murder.
There is a perverse irony here. Henry McCollum, long invoked as an argument for the death penalty, is innocent. Instead of the ultimate threat, he represents the ultimate injustice: a government condemning an innocent man to die. McCollum is not a boogeyman. Rather he is a case study of everything wrong with a broken capital punishment system that has no place in this country.
In another cruel irony, McCollum’s boogeyman status was successfully used to thwart the Racial Justice Act, which proved racial bias in four cases before it was repealed last year. And that’s tragic because North Carolina and other southern states desperately need laws like these to protect the innocent from racial bias.
Southern states, like North Carolina, are the most likely to wrongfully convict and sentence innocent people to death. And in those states, black defendants bear the greatest burden of wrongful convictions. Of the nine men wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina, eight are men of color and seven – including McCollum and his half-brother – are black.
Race showed up in McCollum’s trial from the start. The trial prosecutors in McCollum’s case deliberately and unconstitutionally struck multiple qualified black jurors from jury service. This is a common practice: statewide, prosecutors were more than twice as likely to strike qualified black jurors as all other jurors.
For years now, North Carolina prosecutors have known about the statistical evidence showing widespread bias in the way they pursue capital convictions. Rather than addressing the findings and changing their practices, they have fought the Racial Justice Act and tried to keep statistical evidence of racial bias out of court. These misplaced priorities further erode the capital punishment system’s ability to produce accurate and just results, leading to errors that can never be erased.
North Carolina’s legislators now need to take a close look at Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown and see how racial bias distorts and undermines the state’s criminal justice system. Two innocent men are now middle aged, leaving prison after being locked up since they were teenage boys. Sabrina Buie’s loved ones have been strung along for three decades by police and prosecutors, believing two innocent men took their little girl from them in a rural North Carolina soybean field. And a community’s trust in the ability of its courts to produce a just outcome – accurate and untainted by racial bias – has been eroded.
After three decades of needless injustice, it is good to celebrate the fact that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown are going home. But the statistics tell us that there are many more like them, many who made it to death row only because of a broken and biased system. We need more protections, not fewer, to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions and eliminate racial bias. Ending the death penalty would be a good start.