EDITORS NOTE: Capital punishment was in the news this week as two brothers twice convicted in North Carolina were declared innocent by a court of law. People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a national faith-rooted abolition organization based in North Carolina has followed this case closely for years. Their director, Steve Dear, gave us this report and call to action.
This week, for the first time in 31 years, Henry McCollum woke up in his own bed, a free man. In a Robeson Country courtroom on Tuesday, September 2, Henry was exonerated for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983.
Henry was the longest-serving prisoner on North Carolina’s death row.
His brother, Leon Brown, spent five years on death row and then a quarter-century in prison for the same crime.
After hours of intense police interrogation in 1983, both men signed confessions without lawyers present. They believed, as they were told by authorities, that this was the only way they would ever get to go home.
Both Henry and Leon were illiterate at the time.
New DNA evidence points to another man, Roscoe Artis, a serial rapist and murderer who lived nearby at the time and is now serving a life sentence for a similar murder committed just weeks after the murder of Sabrina Buie. The existence of that evidence was not shared with defense attorneys.
“Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct, ” wrote the New York Times in its lead editorial on Thursday.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia once called for Henry’s death in stating his support for the death penalty. Henry’s lethal injection would be “enviable, ” Justice Scalia wrote in 1994.
In 2010 the N.C. Republican Party sent a campaign mailer prior to the general election with Henry’s mug shot on it, falsely claiming he would be free under the Racial Justice Act.
Get to know Henry McCollum. He RAPED AND MURDERED AN 11 YEAR OLD CHILD. … But thanks to ultra-liberal Hugh Holliman, (he) might be moving out of jail and into your neighborhood sometime soon.
Rep. Holliman’s own daughter had been murdered and her murderer, Ricky Sanderson, was executed in 1998. Ironically, in that case the original suspect was also mentally disadvantaged and confessed during intense police interrogation. He was saved from a possible wrongful conviction and death sentence by Sanderson turning himself in.
But after 31 years of being lied about and used by police, judges, and politicians, Henry and Leon are free. Now they face… we can’t imagine. North Carolina has never outright provided any of its death row exonerees compensation.
What can we say to these two survivors of a broken criminal justice system that we vote and pay for? How do we say we are sorry?
We can offer our prayers for Leon and Henry. We can pray for Sabrina Buie’s family. We can pray for ourselves who allow the death penalty to continue. But what else can we do now?
Today, you can get involved where you live.
- Support your state organizations working for repeal.
- Ask your pastor to sign People of Faith Against the Death Penalty’sclergy letter for repeal.
- Ask your congregation to pray together for Henry McCollum and Leon Brown and Sabrina Buie and their families. Ask your congregation, your favorite businesses, and your local government to pass a resolution for repeal of the death penalty.
- Get some friends together and have a 15-minute conversation with your local district attorney about his or her position on the death penalty. Be friendly, ask questions, and listen. Go back in three months. Build a relationship. Same with your state senator and representative. Your sheriff. Your police chief. Your mayor.
Thursday of this week was the first day since Ronald Reagan’s first term in office that Henry and Leon looked up at a sky not surrounded by walls or men with guns in turrets. It’s the first day in 31 years they were not considered child rapists by other prisoners. In Henry’s case, it was the first day he wasn’t condemned to be poisoned to death in our name.
As people who know a resurrection when we see one, we shout, “Hallelujah!”
It’s a new day for Henry and Leon. It’s a new opportunity for us all to abolish the death penalty.
As Henry himself said shorty after his release: “You’ve still got innocent people on North Carolina’s death row. You’ve got some guys who should not have gotten the death penalty. That’s wrong. You got to do something about those guys.”
Indeed, we all do.