The Innocent on Death Row
NY Times Editorial
The exoneration of two North Carolina men who spent 30 years in prison — one on death row — provides a textbook example of so much that is broken in the American justice system. And it is further evidence (as though more were needed) that the death penalty is irretrievably flawed as well as immoral.
In late September 1983, an 11-year-old girl named Sabrina Buie was found murdered in a soybean field in Robeson County. She had been raped, beaten with sticks and suffocated with her own underwear.
Within days, police got confessions from two local teenagers, Henry Lee McCollum, 19 at the time, and his half brother, Leon Brown, who was 15. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.
The crime was so horrific that it has echoed for decades through North Carolina politics and beyond. In 1994, after Justice Harry Blackmun of the Supreme Court announced that he opposed capital punishment in all circumstances, Justice Antonin Scalia cited the Buie murder as a case where it was clearly warranted. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” he wrote.
On Tuesday, a state judge ordered both men freed after multiple pieces of evidence, some of which had never been turned over to defense lawyers, proved that neither Mr. McCollum nor Mr. Brown was responsible for the crime. DNA taken from a cigarette found at the crime scene matched a different man, Roscoe Artis, who is already serving life in prison for a similar murder committed just weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing.
Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct.
No physical evidence linked either man to the crime, so their false confessions, given under duress, were the heart of the case the prosecutors mounted against them. Both men’s confessions were handwritten by police after hours of intense questioning without a lawyer or parent present. Neither was recorded, and both men have maintained their innocence ever since.
Equally disturbing, Mr. Artis was a suspect from the start. Three days before the murder trial began, police requested that a fingerprint from the crime scene be tested for a match with Mr. Artis, who had a long history of sexual assaults against women. The test was never done, and prosecutors never revealed the request to the defense.
It was not until 2011 that the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that had taken on the men’s case, discovered the old fingerprint request. The commission also found that multiple statements in the two confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the facts of the crime. In July, the commission finally got the full case file and matched the DNA to Mr. Artis.
None of these pieces mattered to the prosecution in 1984. The prosecutor on the case, Joe Freeman Britt, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor” for the nearly 50 death sentences he won during his tenure. Almost all have since been overturned.
Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, who are now middle-aged, have a hard road ahead. In addition to the difficulties of adapting to life after three decades behind bars, both are intellectually disabled. (Since their conviction, the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for both juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities.)
Cases of capital prosecutions based on flimsy evidence or marred by prosecutorial misconduct, not to mention racial bias, are distressingly common. Yet, even as death-penalty supporters insist that only guilty people are sent to their death, it is now clear that Justice Scalia was prepared 20 years ago to allow the execution of a man who, it turns out, was innocent.
How many more remain on death row today? Can the American people be assured that none will be killed by the state? For this reason alone, the death penalty must end.