Posted by Luke A. Williams.
I recently attended – along with prosecutors, other defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers – a continued legal education course regarding wrongful conviction. The course kicked off with the study of a case out of North Carolina of two men (19 and 15 at the time of their convictions) who were recently exonerated via DNA evidence.
The men, Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, both confessed to killing an 11-year-old girl in 1983. The question that immediately floated around the room was: why would these two boys confess to a horrific murder if they didn’t actually commit the crime? It’s a fair-enough question and probably the reason the jury that eventually found them guilty of the murder sentenced both of these boys to death. But – in the spirit of Paul Harvey – the “rest of the story” explained how these confessions were coerced.
There was no physical evidence that tied McCollum and Brown to the crime. The lead that was provided to investigators came in the form of a rumor from a fellow schoolmate of the boys who cast suspicion on them because they had recently moved from New Jersey – they were outsiders. Investigators took them in for questioning. Initially, they took in Henry. After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Henry told investigators a story of how he and three other boys attacked and killed the girl. He was promised that if he confessed to the crime he would be released to his mother – he was 19 years old. His “statement” was typed out by the investigators and he put his signature to it after the 5-hour interrogation. The last thing Henry said after signing the confession was, “Can I go home now?”
After Henry’s interrogation, Leon was brought in (at 2:30 a.m.). He was told that Henry had confessed and implicated Leon being involved as well. Leon was made similar promises and also told that he would be executed if he did not cooperate. After another lengthy interrogation, Henry also confessed to attacking and killing the girl.
Both men were tried and both men were sentenced to execution.
After 30 years, lawyers from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found at the murder scene. The DNA was matched – but not to either McCollum or Brown. The DNA came back as a match to Roscoe Artis, a man who lived in a house yards away from the wooded area where the murder took place. Coincidentally, only a few weeks after the murder, Artis confessed to the rape and murder of another 18-year-old girl in the same town. The circumstances surrounding that murder contained striking similarities to the murder that McCollum and Brown were convicted of. Artis was implicated in a number of other murders that occurred in the same area and all under the same or similar circumstances. Based on the DNA testing and the investigation into Roscoe Artis, after 30 years in prison and on death row, McCollum and Brown were exonerated and released.
It’s a story that, as a defense attorney and former prosecutor, I’ve heard before. While not the norm and certainly not common, it’s something I know has happened. The key question though is, “does this still happen?” I was surprised when I overheard one of the members of law enforcement in the room exclaim that, “Oh, this would never happen these days.” While I certainly agree that things have changed and drastically improved since the days of McCollum and Brown, I can’t help but think that the mentality of the impossibility of this happening again is an extremely dangerous one.
I imagine if this case happened today; certainly DNA would be gathered and tested against suspects. But, what happens if there isn’t any DNA at the scene (yes, this could still happen)? What happens if false or speculative accusations or suspicions occur again? What happens if false confessions happen again? In a horrific murder case, I think its naïve for anyone in the field of criminal justice to make a blanked statement that, “this could never happen again.” It can and it will. We have a great justice system but not a perfect one – a human one.
Things have got better. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement personnel have a heightened awareness of the possibility of a wrongful conviction. But, we all must remain vigilant and never put on blinders to the fact that it can happen again.