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DNA Evidence Finally Frees Brothers Falsely Imprisoned for 1983 Murder

Justice Scalia once held up the mentally disabled brothers as people who should be executed.
 
 
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Credit Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer

 

Two mentally disabled half brothers have have been cleared in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl thirty years ago, the New York Times reports.

The case was always considered weak, but the brothers' confessions to the crime, which many believed were coerced, crumbled after DNA evidence implicated another man who lived just one block away from where the body was found. What was also overlooked was the fact that the same man admitted to a similar rape and murder around the same time.

Though DNA has, yet again, proven how powerful science is in prosecuting criminals and exonerating criminals, a lot of damage has already been done. Henry Lee McCollum, 50, spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, was serving a life sentence before finally being exonerated.

During a hearing in Robeson County, S.C., Tuesday, Superior Court judge Douglas B. Sasser, vacated their convictions and McCollum’s death sentence and ordered their release.

“We waited all these long years for this,” said James McCollum, the father of the man released from death row. “Thank you, Jesus.”

Here is more from The Times:

The exoneration ends decades of legal and political battles over a case that became notorious in North Carolina and received nationwide discussion, vividly reflecting the country’s fractured views of the death penalty.

The two young defendants were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, the 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting district attorney who was later profiled by “60 Minutes” as the country’s “deadliest D.A.” because he sought the death penalty so often.

For death penalty supporters, the horrifying facts of the girl’s rape and murder only emphasized the justice of applying the ultimate penalty. As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr. McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers that accused a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.

In 1994, when the United States Supreme Court turned down a request to review the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described Mr. McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection. But Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissent, noted that Mr. McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that “this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.”

McCollum and Brown received death sentences for murder, initially. But after new trials were set by the State Supreme Court, McCollum was sentenced to death as he was in the first trial; Brown was convicted only of rape, and his sentence was reduced to life.

One disturbing aspect of the case is that police ignored another likely suspect. Roscoe Artis, who lived one block from where the child's body was found and who had a history of sexual assault convictions, was not considered a suspect in the crime, according to The Times:

Only weeks after the murder, in fact, Mr. Artis confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs. Mr. Artis received a death sentence, later reduced to life, for that crime and remains in prison. Officials never explained why, despite the remarkable similarities in the crimes, they kept their focus on Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown even as the men proclaimed their innocence.

The only witness at the hearing Tuesday was Sharon Stellato of the innocence inquiry commission, who under questioning from defense lawyers described the lack of evidence tying the two men to the crime as well as the DNA findings implicating Mr. Artis. The district attorney said he had no evidence to the contrary.