Two inmates with mental disabilities were released from jail Wednesday after 30 years behind bars for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl that new DNA evidence shows they didn’t commit. One of them, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, was facing a death sentence. Both he and his brother Leon Brown, 46, insisted repeatedly that they didn’t commit the crime. At the age of 19, McCollum was pushed to confess during a five-hour interrogiation in which he was not represented by an attorney, and Brown, just 15, signed confession shortly thereafter.
McCollum said recently in an interview with the News & Observer, “I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me. I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”
But in the years before the brothers’ exoneration, the Republican party demonized politicians who sought to ensure justice for McCollum and other potentially innocent black men in death row. A campaign mailer issued by the North Carolina Republican Party in 2010 warned that McCollum “might be moving out of jail and into Your neighborhood sometime soon” because Democratic lawmaker Hugh Holliman voted for a law known as the Racial Justice Act. On the reverse side of the ad was an image of a man wearing a ski mask and holding a crow bar.
The ad called Holliman a “criminal coddler,” depicting Holliman as a dangerous soft-on-crime candidate because he aspired to help those wrongly imprisoned and spare death sentences for the innocent:
The Racial Justice Act, which has since been repealed, allowed inmates to challenge their death sentence if they could show racial bias. In North Carolina, as in the United States overall, blacks are dramatically more likely to face death sentences, sometimes in cases in which raced played an overt role.
But criminal justice reforms to correct false convictions that may pose a more genuine danger to many black men have historically faced a difficult political road, thanks to campaigns like this one that punish views depicted as soft on crime, even by judges. In Oklahoma, legislators moved to impeach several state justices who suspended death sentences using secret lethal injection drugs not regulated by the FDA. Days later, one of those inmates was executed in a prolonged, botched execution in which Clayton Lockett slowly suffocated for 43 minutes. And in South Carolina, the Republican Governors Association ran a vicious political ad against Democratic candidate Vincent Sheheen for representing criminal defendants as a lawyer. The ad alleged that Sheheen, a former prosecutor, “protects criminals not South Carolina.”
In the North Carolina instance, the Republican party later apologized for the mailer after learning that Holliman’s own daughter had been murdered, and he was a witness to the killer’s execution. Holliman said he believed in capital punishment but believed the Racial Justice Act would improve the system.
The emergence of DNA testing in 1989 and the accompanying scientific proof that convicted defendants were innocent called into question many tactics once considered reliable, including false confessions. In 2013, 17 percent of cases in which defendants were exonerated involved false confessions like those by McCollum and Brown. Many involve factual scenarios in which police feed information to suspects who later repeat it back. Many involve mentally disabled individuals like McCollum and Brown or youths who are more susceptible to coercion, or even beatings, offering leverage in exchange, or simply lying by officers during interrogations of which there is no recording.
In the case of McCollum and Brown, both of whom have IQ scores low enough that they are considered intellectually disabled, the unrecorded confessions that they said they were tricked into giving and later recanted were the only evidence against them.
“The whole case rests on the confessions,” said District Attorney Johnson Britt, the county’s lead prosecutor, “and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”