McCollum and Brown and the End of Death Row

By Rachel Burger – Contributor –

Last week, North Carolina released the 145th and 146th prisoner from death row for wrongful conviction. Henry McCollum and his half-brother, Leon Brown, were 19 and 15, respectfully, when they were convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl. Neither man has an IQ over 70 and were recognized as mentally disabled at the time of the trial. Earlier this month, they were released after new DNA evidence uncovered that another known sex-offender was behind the girl’s death. The two brothers are now experiencing freedom for the first time in 30 years. The shoddy way this case was carried out underscores the need to end the death penalty.

The half-brothers had initially signed a confession that they were guilty but only after hours of coercive police investigation without an attorney. One officer even promised McCollum that he could go home after he signed. The state ignored McCollum’s 226 recants of his confession.

Only a few days before the brothers were set to go to trial in 1984, the local police asked the State Bureau of Investigation to examine a cigarette butt and beer can for fingerprints. The state didn’t bother. It was only after the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission stepped in that these items were investigated, ultimately proving to be the evidence that led to McCollum and Brown’s ruling being overturned.

McCollum and Brown’s exoneration highlights everything that is wrong with the death penalty system in the United States.

The defendants in this case, like so many who are still on death row, were young when they were convicted. They are people of color and have diagnosed mental handicaps. The evidence used to convict them was wrongfully obtained and highly suspect. And, with the media flurrying around their case, a panel of their peers would not save them.

Marc Hyden, a spokesperson for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, says that capital punishment is the penultimate government abuse of power. Indeed, the McCollum and Brown case is not Ferguson, where a police officer shot a teenage boy — it’s worse. The case highlights how the justice system fails under the guise of the rule of law and “impartial” investigation and can take 30 years of two men’s lives away. As their lawyer wrote in The Washington Post, “How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?”

Soon after he took office, President Barack Obama stated that he would no longer tolerate torture. Of course, he was talking about torture abroad, but it’s time that he and other politicians start looking at the torture that’s going on domestically. Not all executions go smoothly. Many die slow and horrific deaths. Families of victims do not always feel relief after the alleged murderer is killed, but waiting for death can be just as horrid. McCollum spent three decades facing his impending execution in a climate that’s not particularly kind to alleged child rapists and killers. That, in itself, is living a tortured life.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America released a study earlier this year that found that more than 4 percent of inmates sentenced to death are probably innocent. Public support for the death penalty has dropped 20 percent over the past two decades. McCollum and Brown’s case should mark the beginning of the end for death row: It’s cruel and unusual punishment, and, like many government programs, it’s an imperfect system. When the courts are deciding the fate of people’s very lives, the US citizenry should demand perfection or tear down the death institution itself.

Amazingly, McCollum is not resentful or bitter. He stated, “[T]hey took 30 years away from me for no reason, but I don’t hate them. I don’t hate them one bit.” But even though he has shown forgiveness toward the system that incarcerated him for decades, the rest of us shouldn’t be. It’s time to rethink the death penalty, and abolish it moving forward.

Rachel Burger is a Young Voices Advocate and associate editor of Thoughts on Liberty.

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