by Jay Parr
This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.
Both of these men were convicted—and condemned—based on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These men—scared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police before—were convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.
Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decades—as men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.
There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.
The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trial—the system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—failed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.
That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphere—including a Supreme Court justice—has trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”
The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.
These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”
The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.
These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.
It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.
These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.
If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.
Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.