DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—The same day Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis faced off against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in the first debate for her hotly contested US Senate seat, two men were freed from a North Carolina prison after spending decades incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit.
Now middle aged, the two brothers have been in prison — one of them on death row — since they were teenagers, wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a child. When ThinkProgress asked Tillis if anything needs to change in light of this case, he said that because they were eventually exonerated, “It’s an example of how we have protections in our judicial system in North Carolina.”
“I feel very, very sorry for them and I’m glad to know they’re out,” he said. “At least the process worked, it just took too long.”
But civil and legal rights advocates, including Vernetta Alston at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, have long argued the “process” has not worked at all for Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown.
“At every juncture, the system failed Henry and Leon,” Alston told ThinkProgress. “They were coerced into giving false confessions. These two boys could hardly read. They were very intellectually disabled. They were manipulated and threatened, and only signed the statements because law enforcement told them they could go home. It’s unacceptable.”
The brothers were interrogated for hours with no attorney present in order to obtain the confessions, which they both later recanted. There was never any physical evidence against them. McCollum’s defense team demanded DNA testing 10 years ago, when it became available in the state. Some results came back in 2005 showing the cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime did not match McCollum, but the DNA was not tied to convicted murderer Roscoe Artis until this year.
“Law enforcement was in a rush to get a conviction, and during the investigation they missed the real killer, who was right under their nose,” Alston said. “And because of their haphazard and negligent investigation, he went on to kill again.”
On Wednesday night, Speaker Thom Tillis called for Brown and McCollum to be given some sort of financial assistance in order to reintegrate back into society. “You can never repay someone for 30 years of incarceration for being wrongly accused,” he told ThinkProgress. “But we can take steps to make right by those two gentlemen.”
But there is no mechanism in place for that to happen in North Carolina. Only if Republican Governor Pat McRory grants them an official “pardon of innocence” can they seek compensation for the decades they have lost. Alston said she anticipates both McCollum and Brown will pursue this path, and hopes the Governor will find their case compelling.
Additionally, Tillis’ own campaign materials tout his leading role in “passing a bill to end the de-facto moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina.” That refers to his vote to repeal the Racial Justice Act, a law that allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences and reduce them to life in prison if they could prove racial bias in their cases. Though that law may not have helped Brown and McCollum, advocates said it was an important protection for a vulnerable population.
Just a few years ago, Tillis’ party also used an image of McCollum on an election mailer warning that he would be “moving out of jail and into YOUR neighborhood sometime soon” if North Carolinians voted Democrat.
As soon as he was released, McCollum emphasized that he was far from the only inmate in the state to suffer a miscarriage of justice.
“You’ve still got innocent people on North Carolina death row,” he said. “Also you’ve got some guys who should not have gotten the death penalty. That’s wrong. You got to do something about those guys.”
Alston said McCollum’s case “suggests very strongly that there are other innocent people on [death row] and certainly other innocent people in prison. She and other attorneys at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation represent a full third of North Carolina’s death row population, many of them pursuing claims of innocence.
This post has been updated to include comments from Henry Lee McCollum’s attorney Vernetta Alston at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.