I was relieved that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, after waiting over 30 years, finally proved their innocence with the help of DNA evidence and were released from prison in North Carolina.
As someone who personally knows the horror of being wrongfully convicted, it’s hard to celebrate this news. Thankfully these men are free, but they are burdened with the emotional pain of suffering in prison, fearing a possible execution, being vilified by the media, and not knowing for all those years whether the truth would ever come out.
These exonerations mark the 145th and 146th time that an individual has been wrongfully sentenced to death and later found innocent in the U.S. since 1973. So many wrongful convictions have come to light in recent years, in death penalty and non-death penalty cases, that there’s a tendency to grow numb to these injustices.
Since my exoneration in 2008 of a murder I didn’t commit, there have been over a dozen exonerations just in Kansas and Missouri, including that of Reginald Griffin, who was wrongfully sentenced to death and spent 30 years in prison before his release.
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We can’t allow ourselves to grow numb to these injustices. The appalling facts in McCollum’s and Brown’s cases cry out for action, and remind us of the urgent need to end the death penalty.
In 1983, McCollum and Brown became the prime suspects in the horrific rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. The deck was stacked against them from the start. They were young, black, mentally disabled, and also outsiders, having recently moved to North Carolina from New Jersey. Officials focused their investigation on McCollum and Brown after a teenager suggested them as suspects. Scared after hours of interrogation by the police, the two men confessed to the crime just to make the interrogation stop.
They tried to recant at the trial, but that was a losing proposition. They had confessed — case closed. Both were sentenced to death and, because the crime was so horrible, most were certain that justice was done. The Supreme Court refused to review the case, and Justice Antonin Scalia — without a shred of doubt — singled out McCollum as the prime example of someone deserving the death penalty. As late as 2010, McCollum’s mug shot appeared on campaign mailers attacking anyone who might be “soft on crime.”
At all levels of government, everyone was certain that these men were monsters deserving to die. But they were all wrong. New DNA evidence pointed to another individual with a record of sexual assaults. Finally the world knows what McCollum and Brown knew all along — they are innocent.
If this case teaches us anything, it teaches the importance of humility in our criminal justice system. In the aftermath of grave crimes, like those that have recently rocked the Kansas City area, there is understandable anger and a desire for the death penalty. But executions have no place in an imperfect system that sometimes convicts the innocent.
In Kansas and Missouri, it is at our own peril if we fail to act in light of injustices like those suffered by Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. Both states need to end the death penalty — and soon.
Darryl Burton was wrongfully convicted of murder in Missouri on the basis of perjured testimony and spent 24 years in prison before being exonerated and released. He currently is pursuing his Master of Divinity at St. Paul School of Theology and serves as a pastor intern at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood. To learn more about him, go to Dabex.org.