On September 2nd, 2014, after spending 30 years on death row, a travesty of justice ended when Henry Lee McCollum was acquitted of the 1983 rape and murder of Sabrina Buie. Henry's brother, Leon Brown, who also served 30 years in prison, was acquitted of the rape and released. Had it not been for Brown's 2009 application to the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission, Henry McCollum would still be on death row.
In fact, had it not been for the connection between the two brothers in the Buie case the commission wouldn't have reviewed Henry's convictions. For some insane reason the Innocence Commission can't or won't investigate death penalty cases until the condemned has exhausted his or her appeals and a claim has been filed. The problem with this is when a death row prisoner is out of appeals they're usually executed. How incredibly fortunate for Henry North Carolina's dysfunctional justice system reluctantly fell into a defacto moratorium on executions in 2007.
This one was too close. As it stands Henry and Leon had over half their lives stolen from them by blind, overzealous SBI agents, impressionable jurors, ineffective attorneys, and a prosecutor who brags about his oratory power to persuade people rather than rely upon facts and evidence in a case. This treatment of innocent defendants is not an aberration, Henry's acquittal is NC's eighth from death row. Who knows how many more are lost in the system?
The difference between the previous seven acquittals and Henry is that an objective commission had a hand in clearing him of any wrongdoing. The first seven had to rely on their appellate attorneys and the minimal resources available to them. One wonders why Henry's attorneys, after three decades, were incapable of freeing him? Why was the commission, with a little digging, so able to turn up exculpatory DNA evidence? These questions may seem complex, but they underline a common problem with many appellate attorneys who represent death row prisoners: the bare minimum is the status quo.
In Henry's case the bare minimum in 1991 put him back on death row after a new trial. His attorney of the moment, Marshall Dayan, tried to coerce Henry to confess to a crime he did not commit. This is so inexcusable it should be criminal. With so many people against indigent, intellectually challenged defendants like Henry McCollum it is not enough he regained his freedom and will likely collect a large sum of money in settlement. Just as the prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt, SBI agents, and police detectives set out to make an example of Henry, so too should an example be made of them. There is no better demonstration of the need to end prosecutor immunity from criminal charges for wrongly pursuing a capital case against an innocent man. It's a miracle Henry made it home alive.
Christine Mumma, executive director of the NC Center for Actual Innocence, mentioned some lessons learned from the exoneration of Henry McCollum. The obvious one everybody should know is that in this country you're guilty until proven innocent -- no matter what the "law" claims. What the public needs to be aware of is that the horrible circumstances of injustice in the Buie case is a culture in North Carolina death penalty cases, not some isolated event. Maybe, if the Innocence Commission were to work in conjunction with appellate attorneys to defend their clients, extensive prison terms suffered by innocent men can be avoided. At the very least the commission can demonstrate what it means to be true representatives of justice and vigorously pursue the facts.