September 3, 2014

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown have been in prison for 31 years for a crime they did not commit. Tuesday, a judge exonerated them, reversed their convictions, and they are expected to be freed today.

But this case could easily have ended very differently. The Week:

On Tuesday, a North Carolina Superior Court judge exonerated two half-brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, of the 1983 rape and brutal murder of an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie. Judge Douglas Sasser vacated the convictions and McCollum's death sentence, and ordered the two men released immediately. Prison officials returned McCollum and Brown to jail, where they are expected to be processed and released on Wednesdays, after nearly 31 years behind bars.

McCollum and Brown, both of whom have IQs in the 50s and 60s, were convicted mainly on the basis of signed confessions they both said were untrue and coerced at their trials. They were cleared thanks to DNA testing of evidence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission did find DNA evidence on a cigarette butt near the crime scene, but it belonged to Roscoe Artis, a convicted sexual predator who lived a block from where Buie's body was found. About a month after Buie's murder, Artis confessed to raping and murdering an 18-year-old, a crime for which he is serving a life sentence.

The murder of Sabrina Buie was so notorious that when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case in 1994, The New York Times recalls, Justice Antonin Scalia used the occasion to cite McCollum as reason to use lethal injection. (Justice Harry Blackmun argued that because McCollum had the intellect of a 9-year-old, "the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.")

Oh yes, those 'law and order justices' who believe courts are infallible, juries always get it right, and prosecutors are as pure as the driven snow. This prosecutor still believes the conviction is valid, despite overwhelming evidence of the brothers' innocence. Because when have prosecutors ever been wrong?

Both men lost 31 years in prison they'll never get back. For their family, it's a sweet victory but it is also bittersweet.

Rosie Mae Williams, aunt to McCollum and Brown, said her family never believed for a second that Brown and McCollum were guilty.

“I’ve been praying 31 years,” Williams said. “But right after the trial, the people wanted to kill them, kill them in a hurry.”

Black, mentally challenged, and male. What other evidence could they possibly have needed?

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