Free At Last: Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

It’s time to Break It Down!

In three decades, there are thirty years, 360 months, 1565 weeks, 10,957 days, 262,992 hours, 15,724,800 minutes, and 946,707,779 seconds. No matter how you slice it, that’s a long time. Especially when looked at in the context of a lifetime. The median age of African Americans in the United States is thirty-one.

A week ago, two men were released from prison. Henry McCollum, 50, had spent more than thirty years in Central Prison in Raleigh, NC. His half brother, Leon Brown, 46, was in Maury Correctional Institution, in Maury, NC. Both men were initially convicted for the September 1983 murder and rape of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, and sentenced to death. They were re-tried in 1991. At that time, Brown’s murder charge was dropped, but he was re-convicted for the rape and sentenced to life in prison. Charges against McCollum were sustained.

McCollum was 19 at the time of the conviction; Brown was 15. They were exonerated and NC Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser vacated their sentences after DNA evidence linked the crime to another man, Roscoe Artis, 74, already serving time in a NC prison. An investigation by the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission found no evidence tracing the crime back to the brothers.

Recent events have resulted in a great deal of attention being drawn to America’s legal system. Much of that attention has centered upon the propensity for white police officers to kill unarmed black men. This case unleashes an entirely different kettle of fish, as it were. Both McCollum and Brown are intellectually disabled. Moreover, there were a number of key and obvious inconsistencies with the process that led to their convictions, including:

  • The Red Springs Police Department consistently denied having any evidence in its possession related to the convictions of McCollum and Brown. Yet, just last month the Innocence Inquiry Commission found a box of physical evidence being held by the police that had been in the department’s possession since the early 1990’s.
  • The Red Springs Police Department failed to disclose to lawyers for the two men or to the local District Attorney’s office that detectives had requested a critical fingerprint test just days before the 1984 McCollum-Brown trial. Neither the request for the test, nor the fact that it was cancelled before being completed was ever revealed. The test would have compared a fingerprint on a beer can with those of Roscoe Artis, a convicted sex offender who lived just a few feet away from the field where Sabrina Buie’s body was found.
  • The crime scene investigator, who knew all the details of the crime scene and of the autopsy, was involved in the investigation, thereby risking the possibility that the investigation would be contaminated.
  • The detectives wrote out confessions for both McCollum and Brown and asked them to sign them, knowing that their confessions were incriminating, and that both boys were intellectually disabled, and interrogated in the absence of legal representation.
  • The police continued to pursue McCollum and Brown; even their stories were inconsistent with each other.

Thirty years is a long time. These young men were separated from their family and friends for three decades and counting. McCollum and Brown recanted their confessions numerous times. McCollum did so at least 226 times.

Priscilla McCollum, Henry’s stepmother, noted, “We have not touched our son Henry in over 30 years. We are so grateful that it’s over.” Mrs. McCollum recalled putting her hands against the glass that separated them when they visited.

Both men endured a grave injustice; both had 30 years of their life stolen. McCollum, who was on Death Row, spent three decades watching other inmates being carried off to the execution chamber. He became so distraught during executions that he had to be placed in isolation so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

That the confessions of both men were obtained through dubious means is shameful. That evidence was suppressed, and a number of law enforcement representatives conspired to deprive two innocent men of their freedom, and possibly their lives is a travesty of the highest order.

Thanks to the work of a dedicated team of lawyers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown regained their freedom. However, they will never get justice. “Free At Last: Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied.”

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