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2014-09-04

A Victory over Justice System’s Failure: Wrongly Convicted Brothers Freed After 31 Years in Prison

Guests

Vernetta Alston, one of the lawyers for Henry Lee McCollum, and a staff attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Steven Drizin, clinical professor at Northwestern Law School and the assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, where for more than a decade he was legal director of their Center on Wrongful Convictions.

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Two African-American half-brothers have been exonerated of rape and murder after more than 30 years behind bars in North Carolina. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were found guilty in 1984 of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. There was no physical evidence tying them to the crime, but police obtained confessions that McCollum and Brown have always said were coerced. Police at the time failed to investigate another man, Roscoe Artis, who lived near the crime scene and had admitted to a similar rape and murder at around the same time. After three decades, the case saw a major breakthrough last month when testing by North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission tied Artis’ DNA to the crime scene. After a hearing presenting the new evidence Tuesday, the two brothers were declared innocent and ordered freed. Over the years, death penalty supporters have cited the brothers’ case in order to back capital punishment. In 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party pasted McCollum’s mug shot on campaign mailers. In 1994, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to McCollum as an example of why the death penalty is just. We are joined by two guests: Vernetta Alston, one of the lawyers representing Henry Lee McCollum, and a staff attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation; and Steven Drizin, clinical professor at Northwestern Law School and assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, where for more than a decade he was legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with the case of two African-American half-brothers who have been exonerated of rape and murder convictions in North Carolina after over 30 years behind bars. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were found guilty in 1984 of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. There was no physical evidence tying them to the crime, but police obtained confessions that McCollum and Brown have always said were coerced. In fact, during his trial, McCollum recanted his confession 226 times.

AMY GOODMAN: Police at the time failed to investigate another man, Roscoe Artis, who lived near the crime scene and had admitted to a similar rape and murder at around the same time. After 30 years, the case saw a major breakthrough last month when testing by North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission tied Artis’s DNA to the crime scene. After a hearing presenting the new evidence Tuesday, the two brothers were declared innocent and ordered freed. This is McCollum speaking Wednesday after he was released from death row.

HENRY LEE McCOLLUM: I’m happy. I’m very emotion. I want to thank God for the glory. Praise all go to him. And I’ve been through—I’ve been through a long journey and sent to prison. I came here in '84 with me and my brother, Leon Brown. And it was a rough experience. Sometime I felt like giving up and stuff. But I said, "No, I can't do that." The life move on. I knew one day that I was going to be blessed to get out of prison. I just didn’t know when that time was going to be. Almighty God that kept me going strong. A lot of joy, rejoicing, happiness and everything, because I was very anxious when they told me this news and stuff. I wanted to get away from this place. And last night, I only had like a couple hours of sleep and stuff. And it’s wonderful. I mean, I just thank God. I just thank God that I’m out of this place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Both Henry McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, have mental disabilities. McCollum’s IQ is between 60 and 69, and Brown has scored as low as 49. Both were originally sentenced to death. After a second trial, Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison, while McCollum remained on death row. In a recent interview with The News & Observer after the DNA testing pointed to a likely exoneration, he said he never lost hope that he would one day see freedom.

HENRY LEE McCOLLUM: Since I have been here, I have never stopped believing that one day I would be able to walk out that door. I never stopped believing that. A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything. I never got a chance to fulfill those dreams, never got the chance, because the people took 30 years away from me, and they destroyed my life. Now, I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the years, death penalty supporters have cited the brothers’ case in order to back capital punishment. In 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party pasted McCollum mug shot on campaign mailers. In 1994, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to McCollum as an example of why the death penalty is just.

For more, we go to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Vernetta Alston. She’s one of the lawyers representing Henry McCollum, and a staff attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe the scene yesterday, Vernetta Alston, when Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were freed?

VERNETTA ALSTON: Well, I was there for Henry’s release. I unfortunately wasn’t able to go to Maury to see Leon’s. But for Henry’s at Central Prison, it was exciting. And he was happy. He was clearly relieved. His dad and stepmother were, I think, nervous and very excited for their son to come home. And Henry, you know, had a handful of other supporters, including myself and another member of his legal team. And it was a relief.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vernetta Alston, could you talk a little bit about the origins of the case, when they were originally arrested and the issue of the confessions and how confessions were gotten from them?

VERNETTA ALSTON: Sure. So, in September of 1983, both Henry, who was 19, and Leon, who was 15—and as you mentioned, they’re both intellectually disabled—were taken to the police—or Henry was taken to the police station by law enforcement officials and questioned for between four and five hours. And Leon came to the station—excuse me—shortly after Henry, just to check, just to see what was happening. And once he got there, he was brought into a room by two other law enforcement officials, and both boys were questioned into the early hours of the morning. And they were manipulated and threatened and told that if they just sign these statements, that they could go home. And so, you know, around 2:00 in the morning, both boys signed these statements that were filled with details that were only known to law enforcement officials at the time. And they thought that they could go home. And, you know, they quickly learned that that wasn’t the case, and they were arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about their protests of innocence in prison, particularly Henry McCollum, your client?

VERNETTA ALSTON: [inaudible] I represent Henry. Henry has maintained his innocence since the day he was first detained at the Red Springs Police Department, and he has been steadfast in that claim ever since. In every meeting that I’ve had with Henry over the past two-and-a-half years, the only thing that he wanted to talk about was his innocence. And to prison officials, he’s maintained the same refrain, that he was completely innocent of this crime, and his brother Leon was, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the 1994 debate, where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to Henry McCollum as an example of why the death penalty is just. He wrote, quote, "For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!" Scalia has long been a vocal supporter of capital punishment and has suggested that an innocent man has never been put to death—at least in recent years. Vernetta Alston, what would you say to Justice Scalia now? And he was having a debate with Justice Blackmun at the time.

VERNETTA ALSTON: [inaudible] that statement, he was wrong. And this case and cases like it prove that he’s been wrong ever since, and he’s wrong now. Innocent people are on death row. Innocent people likely have been put to death. And that should be a huge problem. And I think it illustrates how irredeemable the death penalty is as a punishment.

AMY GOODMAN: In his interview with The News & Observer, Henry McCollum said he made up the story about attacking the girl, Sabrina Buie, so he could just go home after he had been interrogated for several hours. In this clip, he describes the detective’s behavior during questioning and his response.

HENRY LEE McCOLLUM: I was like sitting in a chair. He got all up in my face, hollering at me. That kind of—that kind of shook me. It scared me up a little bit, because I had never been in no police station before, being questioned by a police. Then he’s talking about, "You know you killed that girl. You know you killed that girl." I said, "Man, I didn’t kill nobody, man. I ain’t seen that girl that night." And he said, "When I come back in here, you better tell me the truth," and all that, right? I said, "I told you the truth, where I was that night." He said, "No, you told me you was at home." I said, "That was where I was: at home. I wasn’t out no 12:30 at night." I’d say he came back in like five minutes later. I had made up my mind, right, because I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me and all that crazy stuff. So, what I did, I gave him a false name and made up a story, this is the way the crime happened, when a crime didn’t really happen that way and all that, right? Because I was trying to go home, I gave him false confession.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Henry McCollum in prison in that interview. Vernetta Alston, if you could respond to what he said? Henry McCollum had two trials?

VERNETTA ALSTON: He did. He did. And we know now that he was threatened, that, you know, because of his disabilities, because he was poor and wasn’t in a position intellectually to defend himself, that he was manipulated in that confession and forced to tell a story, again, so that what he—he thought he could go home. That’s what they told him. They said if he gave them that information, that he could leave.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vernetta Alston, I wanted to ask you not only about the—you’ve talked about the police misconduct in this case in terms of the confessions, but what about the prosecution withholding evidence that could have been used to exonerate the men? Could you talk about that, as well?

VERNETTA ALSTON: Absolutely. So, one of the biggest pieces and one of the most alarming things that we’ve learned in the last few months through the Innocence Inquiry Commission’s work is that law enforcement had requested that a fingerprint, a known fingerprint found at the crime scene next to sticks with the victim’s blood on it—a request had been made for that fingerprint to be compared to Roscoe Artis, whose DNA was found at the scene and who committed a very similar rape three weeks later. That request—

AMY GOODMAN: Rape and murder, right?

VERNETTA ALSTON: Of rape and murder, correct. So that request was made three days before Henry’s trial and was never carried out. And based on what we know now, that request was never divulged to Henry’s trial attorneys by the state. And that represents a huge violation of Henry and Leon’s constitutional rights. And these cases, in 1984, were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, who was a notorious, notorious supporter of the death penalty and who secured between 40 and 50 death sentences during his tenure as district attorney. And so, I think what we’ve seen as a pattern in those cases is that he was incredibly reckless, to the point where all but two of his convictions, his death sentences, had been overturned. And the only two that haven’t are folks who have been executed. And so, I think that should signal a huge problem with all of his cases, in terms of what he’s turned over, what he hasn’t, in his own rush to judgment, in his own priorities in getting a conviction rather than seeking the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion after break. Vernetta Alston, stay with us, one of the lawyers for Henry McCollum and a staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Steve Drizin, who is the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Stay with us.

[break]

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue to look at the case of Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, two African-American half-brothers who have been exonerated of rape and murder convictions in North Carolina after over 30 years behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the case and the broader issue of false confessions, we’re joined by Steve Drizin. He’s clinical professor at Northwestern Law School, also the assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, where for more than a decade he’s legal director of their Center on Wrongful Convictions. Still with us, Vernetta Alston, one of the lawyers for Henry McCollum and a staff attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. She is with us in North Carolina. He is with us in Chicago. Steven Drizin, how did this case happen? Talk about the case of Brown and McCollum, and after 30 years, it was discovered that the DNA actually belonged to another man.

STEVEN DRIZIN: Well, the case happened as in many cases of false confessions. It begins with a brutal, horrific crime, often the murder and rape of a small child. And police officers are desperate to solve that case, and they zero in on suspects who are innocent, but, for whatever reason, believe they are guilty. In this case, the only reason they suspected Henry McCollum is because a local 17-year-old girl had said she didn’t like the way that he stared at women in the community. So once they focused on McCollum, they brought him in and they grilled him relentlessly for hours. And they threatened him with the death penalty, and they promised him that he would go home. And they prepared a detailed written statement for him to sign. And at that point in time, as he says, "I would have pretty much signed anything in order to go home."

The fact that this confession was unreliable was apparent on the very face of this confession. As his attorney remarked, there were a ton of details in the confession that only law enforcement officers had known. They obviously put those in the confession. But when they asked him a question about who he participated with in the crime, he named two other young men who were never even charged in the case, because they had rock-solid alibis. So, once this confession entered the case and entered the stream of evidence, it’s the most powerful piece of evidence in a court of law, and their conviction and sentence of death was pretty much assured.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Steve Drizin, the issue of how often these confessions become the basis of capital punishment cases, could you talk about that?

STEVEN DRIZIN: Well, we know that among the cases that have led to exonerations of people by DNA evidence, that approximately 20 to 25 percent of those approximately 320 exonerations involve false confessions. We also have evidence of hundreds of other false confession cases, and almost all of them, more than 80 percent of them, are in murder cases, which in most states qualify for capital punishment.

AMY GOODMAN: Vernetta Alston, the whole issue of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, what is that? And how were they the ones, ultimately, to exonerate the two half-brothers?

VERNETTA ALSTON: Sure. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is an independent state agency that was created around 2007, 2008. And so they function independent of—they’re not related to any prosecutorial agencies or any defense organizations. They’re an independent agency that looks into claims of innocence to find, you know, evidence that hasn’t been uncovered and to verify claims of innocence. They got involved in 2010, following a letter from Leon Brown in 2009 asking them to look into his case. So, from 2010 up until basically Tuesday, they’ve had an active investigation going on in Leon Brown’s case, with the understanding that the evidence related to Leon’s case is identical to that for Henry McCollum. So that’s how they got involved. And they’ve conducted—they’ve done an exhaustive investigation and have tested and retested many of the items of physical evidence that were found. They’ve conducted interviews. They’ve done a phenomenal job in this case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Steve Drizin, the importance of this commission in North Carolina? And I understand it’s one of the only ones like it in the country. And the impact that this could have in other states around the country?

STEVEN DRIZIN: You can’t overstate the importance of this commission. These two men would have probably died in prison if it wasn’t for their exhaustive investigation. And there is no other state with such a commission. The beauty of the commission is that it has subpoena power. It can obtain documents that oftentimes are not produced by the state to defense attorneys. That, in fact, happened in this case. It can expedite DNA testing and can send it to a private lab and make sure that the results qualify for being uploaded into a national database. It did a wide-ranging and exhaustive investigation, and it was completely independent of any of the parties in the case. So when they took a fresh look at this case, they were not looking at it with blinders on. There was no chance of tunnel vision. They were just seeking the truth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what prompted North Carolina to establish the commission?

STEVEN DRIZIN: A number of wrongful convictions, including several in death penalty cases, led the then-Supreme Court chief justice, I. Beverly Lake, to convene a commission on actual innocence. And that commission looked at all of the causes of wrongful convictions in North Carolina and passed and suggested a number of reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. And one of the reforms it suggested was to have an independent body outside of the court system to be able to evaluate claims of innocence.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Drizin, Henry McCollum’s own lawyers pressured him to plead guilty in the second trial. Can you talk about this?

STEVEN DRIZIN: It just shows to me a couple things. One is, is the way in which the death penalty can corrupt the search for truth. Clearly, police officers coerced and threatened these suspects with the death penalty at the beginning. The prosecutor wore his death penalty convictions like notches on his belt in this case. And even the death penalty lawyers, two of the best death penalty lawyers I know of, they felt compelled to pressure Henry to confess to an expert, because they figured that they were going to—that Henry was going to get convicted after his case had been reversed, and that they needed him to confess in order to save his life. So the mere presence of the death penalty corrupted the search for truth at every single process of this case. And you have to understand one thing. I salute the lawyers in this case, the defense lawyers. They did a miraculous job to keep these two men alive for 31 years. But the reality was, is back in 1983, and even in 1988, when these men were tried, we didn’t know very much about false—[no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We seem to have just lost the audio for Professor Steve Drizin. He is a clinical professor at Northwestern Law School, assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, where for more than a decade he was legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Vernetta Alston, your client, Henry McCollum, was for 30—more than 30 years in prison. During that time, about what, more than 40 other death row inmates that he was sharing cells with or was incarcerated with ended up being executed? Could you talk about the emotional damage done to him during all these years?

VERNETTA ALSTON: Absolutely. Yeah, Henry witnessed or saw 42—lived through 42 executions while he was on death row. He saw many of his friends, many of the people he spent most of the days with, executed. And it took a tremendous toll on him. It got to the point where, when an execution was scheduled and was set to be carried out, he would get so anxious and so depressed, that the staff would have to isolate him. They’d have to put him basically in a cage by himself, just so they could watch him, because he would become so distraught and so emotional at seeing one of his friends taken to an execution chamber. And that pattern persisted over the many years that he had to see his fellow inmates executed. And so, it has resulted in, you know, I think, years of depression and anxiety that he still struggles with.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Drizin, we’re talking to you from perhaps the death penalty [sic] capital of the United States, from Chicago. Can you talk about—or, the issue of false convictions. Can you talk about what is happening in Illinois?

STEVEN DRIZIN: Well, we’re not the death penalty capital of the United States; we abolished the death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: I meant to say "false convictions."

STEVEN DRIZIN: Yeah, we are the false confession capital of the United States. And part of the reason we abolished the death penalty is because over the past decade or so we’ve had literally dozens of cases of young African-American men who were pressured into falsely confessing to murders and rapes that they did not commit, very much like the McCollum case. And as those cases began to mount, pressure to first put a moratorium in place and then to abolish the death penalty happened here in Illinois. And I hope that the McCollum case, which is one of those "I’m mad as hell, and I just can’t take it anymore" kind of cases, leads North Carolina to finally abolish the death penalty there.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Drizin, I want to thank you for being with us, clinical professor at Northwestern Law School, assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, for more than a decade the legal director for their Center on Wrongful Convictions. And thank you so much to Vernetta Alston, one of the lawyers for Henry McCollum, a staff attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll have a discussion with the candidates in the Democratic primary for governor and lieutenant governor here in New York state. Stay with us.

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