The slow pace of justice in North Carolina

Two wrongfully convicted North Carolina men still waiting for compensation

A North Carolina judge in September agreed that DNA evidence from a 1983 rape and murder did not match that of either of the two men who had been convicted of the crime. The judge ordered the two wrongfully convicted half-brothers, Henry L. McCollum and Leon Brown, released from prison, and so they were – with $45 apiece and a wave goodbye.

Ultimately they each will likely receive $750,000 from the state in compensation for their wrongful convictions. But that falls far short of justice, both because of the paltry size of the payment, and the opaque bureaucratic process to qualify them for the payments, which has now taken more than five months with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the two men, who are both intellectually disabled, have been living off donations and a loan from a sympathetic bank confident that the state payment eventually will come. The transition to normal life has been hard.

The crime was horrific: Eleven-year-old Sabrina Buie was found raped and murdered in a field. McCollum, then 19, and Brown, then 15, were targeted by police after a teenage girl raised suspicions about them -- both teens had recently moved to the area from New Jersey. During lengthy interrogations, the half-brothers were brow-beaten into signing confessions investigators wrote for them, which were key to the prosecution and the conviction. Exculpatory evidence was withheld, and no physical evidence connected either young man to the murder.

Both men were sent to death row; after an appeal, Brown was sentenced to life. But recent DNA tests of the old evidence matched another prisoner named Roscoe Artis, serving a life sentence after confessing to a similar rape and murder that occurred within weeks and in the same area of the first killing. Artis also lived a block away from that first murder site. Yet investigators at the time remarkably didn’t suspect a connection between the two killings.

“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” Ken Rose, the half-brothers’ lawyer, said at the time of their release. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”

North Carolina provides payments of $50,000 for each year someone has spent in prison under a wrongful conviction, with a cap of $750,000, or 15 years. McCollum and Brown spent more than twice that amount of time in prison. In fact, they have essentially spent their entire adult lives behind bars, and have limited skills for making a living outside of prison. Given how much the two innocent men have lost, the North Carolina payment limit is woefully insufficient.

Yet the two men are forced to wait even for that. North Carolina was the first state in the nation to establish an Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate post-conviction claims of innocence. If someone is cleared of a crime by the commission, the state moves quickly to compensate. But because McCollum and Brown were cleared by a judge, not the commission, they now must receive a pardon from the governor before they are eligible for the payment.

Gov. Pat McCrory has a committee that investigates each application and makes a recommendation, then the governor holds his own review, including an interview with the petitioner, before deciding. So despite the local district attorney telling a judge that his office could no longer mount a case against the two men, and the judge finding them innocent of the murder for which they were convicted, the governor still feels the need to conduct his own lengthy review.

Why? Because, McCrory told the Raleigh News & Observer, there are “varying views and opinions in this case.” Maybe, but it’s hard to find a credible view that the two men were involved in the crime. About the only voice still defending the conviction, in fact, is the district attorney who prosecuted the case, Joe Freeman Britt, who took great pride in being seen as a tough prosecutor.  

So now a blatant injustice is being compounded by an unconscionable delay.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle. 

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