I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin bring us inside a decades-long fight for the truth. The story of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown is living proof that false confessions can send innocent people to death row.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
A portion of this podcast series’ proceeds will be donated to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. To donate, learn more, or get involved, go to http://www.centeronwrongfulconvictions.org/
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This episode includes audio from “Brothers Return Home to Freedom” from The News & Observer. © 2014 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license.
Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider In today's episode, the crime is bad; about as bad as it gets. But the way police and prosecutors mishandled this case and condemned two innocent men to death: That's a crime unto itself. Henry McCollum and his younger brother, Leon Brown, survived a decades-long fight for the truth from behind bars. Henry and Leon are living proof that false confessions can send innocent people to death row.
Steve Drizin Twenty years ago, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which Laura and I co-direct, was deeply involved in exonerating men off of death row in Illinois. The numbers kept ticking up. They went up to 20 people who had been wrongfully sentenced to death.
Laura Nirider Twenty innocent people. Eventually, Illinois lost confidence that the people on death row were actually guilty. And so we got rid of the death penalty.
Steve Drizin When the death penalty was abolished in Illinois. Ten years ago, there were some prosecutors who claimed that the sky would fall; that crime rates would rise; that the system would miss the ability and the power to use the death penalty to right wrongs. And that hasn't happened. We've moved on. We've evolved, and it's time for the rest of the country to follow suit.
Laura Nirider Here's the thing: The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst. But way too often, those are the cases where wrongful convictions happen.
Steve Drizin These are the crimes where there's so much pressure on law enforcement to come up with quick answers, that there are rushes to judgment.
Laura Nirider Right. That's the problem with the death penalty. People can get so blinded with the horrificness of a crime that moral outrage can distort the search for the truth. And that's what happened in this case. Henry McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, paid a terrible price for the police's rush to judgment.
Steve Drizin The facts of the crime often don't tell the whole story and sometimes tell a false story. So while, on paper, this case looks like one that is deserving of the ultimate punishment; in practice, it sent two innocent men to prison for more than 30 years.
Laura Nirider Today's story starts in Robeson County, North Carolina. It's a rural area on the state's southern border, 80 miles inland from the Atlantic coast. Since the 18th century, Robeson County has been known for social strata and racial strife. It's a place where a small group of elite white men, descended from colonial landowners, dominate everything: from the lumber business, to the illegal drug trade, to the courtrooms. Meanwhile, Native Americans, poor whites, and Black people get the scraps. On September 25, 1983, Ronnie Lee Buie came home to his tiny house in one of Robeson counties, predominantly black communities. It was a little after 12 a.m.; he'd just finished working the midnight shift. Within minutes, he noticed that his 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, was missing from her room. Sabrina's family calls the police. As the sun rises and word spreads, friends and neighbors fan out to search for her. But there's no sign of Sabrina until the next afternoon, September 26. That's when Sabrina Buie is found. And it's one of the worst discoveries imaginable. Sabrina is lying in a soybean field, dead, surrounded by empty beer cans and cigarette butts. She's been beaten and raped. She isn't wearing anything except for a bra that's been pushed up around her neck. And her cause of death? Sabrina had been suffocated by her own underwear. Someone had pushed them into her throat with a stick.
Steve Drizin You know, when I read about this crime, it just gutted me. My reaction was visceral. There's a level of depravity here that shocks the conscience.
Laura Nirider Police couldn't bring themselves to believe that someone from their own community would have done this. So they started investigating outsiders. Pretty soon, police caught wind of a rumor about a 19-year-old who'd just arrived in Robeson County to visit his mom. The local high schoolers thought this new kid might have killed Sabrina, because, according to them, he looked weird. That new kid's name was Henry McCollum. Even though his mom lived in Robeson County, Henry had grown up in New Jersey with his grandma. Henry had been diagnosed with intellectual disability when he was really young. For years, he attended a special school, but he failed a bunch of grades anyway and eventually dropped out. School wasn't Henry's strong suit, but obedience to authority was. He'd never been associated with any kind of crime. With nothing more to go on than a high school rumor, police go to Henry's mom's house. And on the evening of September 28, they bring Henry in for interrogation. Three police officers questioned him for more than four hours, all off camera. So we don't know everything that happened in that room. What we do know is that some of Henry's interrogators were familiar with the crime scene. They knew all the information that a killer would be expected to describe. Sometime around 2:00 a.m., the interrogators emerged from the room with a confession that named Henry as one of Sabrina's assailants. It had been written out by the cops. Henry had signed it at the end in oversized letters that looked like a child's handwriting. According to Henry, as soon as he wrote his name on the last page, he looked up at his interrogators and said, "Can I go home now?"
Vernetta Alston I think Henry is a very kind person. He's a very thoughtful person.
Laura Nirider That's Representative Vernetta Alston. She's a member of the North Carolina state legislature. But before that, she was a death penalty lawyer who worked on Henry's case.
Vernetta Alston From the first time I met Henry in 2012, it's my impression that his deficits were very obvious. I think anyone talking to him now, or five years ago, or 30 years ago would have noticed. And so as a result of his deficits, he signed the statement. Now, I think most folks in that circumstance would understand that if they signed a confession to murder, that they wouldn't be allowed to walk out the front door of a police station. But the statement used language that Henry, you know, was very unlikely to have understood. And so he didn't know what was happening at all.
Laura Nirider While Henry's confession was light on details, its story tracked exactly what an investigator who'd been at the scene would know; everything from the pattern on Sabrina's shirt to the brand of cigarettes left behind.
Steve Drizin Here's the thing: Henry could not lead the police to any evidence that they didn't already know about. His confession only contained details that the police already knew. That's a red flag. You have to wonder, is this the suspect's confession or a confession that was scripted by law enforcement to ensure that this suspect was going to get convicted?
Laura Nirider Henry's confession didn't just implicate him. The story was that he'd attacked Sabrina along with four other teenagers. Now, three of those teens turned out to have strong alibis. One of them had even been out of state at the time of Sabrina's death. Prosecutors never filed charges against those three. But the fourth person named? It was Leon Brown, Henry McCollum's 15-year-old brother. And while Henry was disabled, Leon's limitations were far more profound. His IQ was in the 40s on the borderline between moderately and severely disabled. And he was completely illiterate.
Vernetta Alston Both of these men, who were at that time boys, their intellectual disabilities were exploited. Folks who have cognitive deficits that make it difficult or complicated for them to make everyday decisions, to get dressed, to learn a schedule, to make food for themselves, to drive cars, to learn in school at a level that's consistent with their age; folks who are unable to do those things, we shouldn't be holding them to the same standard in our criminal justice system and certainly not in our death penalty system.
Laura Nirider When Henry implicated Leon in his confession, it turned out the timing was pretty bad. While Henry was being questioned, the boys' mom arrived at the police station, begging to see Henry. Police told her she'd have to wait until he confessed. But here's the thing: Henry's mom brought Leon with her to the station. He was almost surely too disabled to be left home alone. So after Henry confessed, and the police came looking for Leon, they didn't have to go any farther than their own lobby. Police put Leon into an interrogation room, then marched his big brother in to show him what to do. Within minutes, Leon was signing a written-out confession of his own; scratching his name as best he could on the bottom of a statement he couldn't even read. Based on their confessions, the two brothers were arrested and charged with rape and capital murder. The question of who killed Sabrina Buie gripped Robeson County. The crime was terrible, and the community wanted justice. So the county's top prosecutor took over the case: the district attorney himself. Joe Freeman Britt was six foot six; a seasoned trial lawyer known for dramatic courtroom flourishes like pounding Bibles in front of the jury. But he was more than just a flashy attorney. By the time Henry and Leon's cases crossed his desk, Joel Freeman Britt had become infamous nationwide for his success at obtaining the death penalty. Over his career, Britt sent more than 47 people to death row. At one point, he obtained two dozen death sentences in only 28 months. Britt was so prolific that he even ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records, which called him the "deadliest prosecutor."
Steve Drizin Some prosecutors believe deeply in the "eye for an eye" mentality. For some, it's almost a biblical calling, like religious fervor that animates them.
Laura Nirider Forty-seven people; I mean, if he weren't a prosecutor, he'd be one of the most prolific serial killers in the United States.
Steve Drizin Forty-seven people. That's unthinkable.
Laura Nirider It seems like Britt leaned into his hard-ass reputation. He'd run training conferences for other prosecutors where he taught them to "rip that jugular out." When he felt like waxing poetic, Britt would say, "Within each of us spurns a flame that constantly whispers, 'preserve life at any cost.' It's the prosecutor's job," he would add, "to extinguish that flame."
Vernetta Alston I think that that sums up who he was as a person and as a district attorney. Joe Freeman Britt was, frankly, a terror. He was a large, commanding presence, and I think really leaned into that persona. I know that he was very, from what I've read, he was very much into the theater of a courtroom; and really played into that to secure convictions.
Laura Nirider Joe Freeman Britt was in full form, gearing up to try Henry and Leon for Sabrina's murder and seeking the death penalty for them both. But before trial, two major problems emerged with Britt's case against the brothers. First of all, Henry and Leon's confessions didn't match each other on several important details: who was involved, how they met up with Sabrina, and the details of the rape and murder. And, of course, there was the matter of the three other boys named in Henry's confession, all of whom were definitely innocent.
Steve Drizin Leon or Henry, there was nothing other than their words that link them to this crime. And Henry and Leon were not the kinds of people that would have committed a perfect crime.
Laura Nirider Even the way in which the confessions were written didn't ring true.
Vernetta Alston Henry's statement used language that Henry was very unlikely to have understood. And I think that's a product of his age and most certainly a product of his intellectual disabilities. And Leon's is similar. If you look at Leon's statement, it's written in penmanship that Leon was incapable of because of his deficits. And again, used language and detail and just sentence structure that Leon would have been incapable of creating.
Laura Nirider The second problem? There was a pretty obvious alternative suspect: a man named Roscoe Artis. Artis lived near the field where Sabrina's body was found, and he had a disturbing history. Only a few weeks after Henry and Leon were arrested, Roscoe Artis had murdered an 18-year-old girl in an attack eerily similar to the attack on Sabrina. Both victims were raped and asphyxiated. Both of them were also found in fields wearing nothing but bras pushed up around their necks. It gets worse. Roscoe Artis was also a suspect in another rape-murder case from 1980. In that case, the victim was found with an object shoved in her throat. Another similarity that should have been impossible to miss.
Steve Drizin Henry McCollum and Leon Brown did not have the kind of background that suggested they were capable of the horrific nature of this crime. This was the work of a sexual predator. Probably a single sexual predator because of the way the crime scene presented itself. This is not some huge community that is beset by violent crime. And the first thing that police officers should have done is focus on men in their own community who had a proclivity for committing these kinds of crimes. Roscoe Artis showed a history of doing this over and over again, and his home was very close to where the body was found.
Laura Nirider Now, here's the really crazy thing about Roscoe Artis. One month before Henry and Leon went to trial, Artis was tried and convicted for the attack on the 18-year-old girl. He was sentenced to death, and that fact almost gives away the punchline. Because sure enough, Roscoe Artis was prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt himself for a crime nearly identical to the one Britt was prosecuting Henry and Leon for. The similarities between Artis' other murders and Sabrina's death should have been unmistakable.
Steve Drizin Those are warning signs; stop lights to say, hey, wait a minute. Let's see what really happened here. Let's look at people who more fit the profile.
Laura Nirider Well, Roscoe Artis was no stranger to law enforcement. That's what's so mind-boggling about this case. It was all there ready to be done right. And it was done so wrong.
Steve Drizin So wrong. This horrible, tragic nightmare could have been averted from the very get-go. And the woman who Roscoe Artis killed less than a month after Sabrina Buie was killed, her life might have been saved.
Laura Nirider Not everyone overlooked the similarities between these murders. We know this because of what happened with a piece of forensic evidence in the case: a single unidentified fingerprint found on one of the beer cans near Sabrina's body. Three days before Henry and Leon's trial started, the police sent a request to the state crime lab to compare that beer can fingerprint to the fingerprints of Roscoe Artis. But Joe Freeman Britt? Even before the crime lab had time to do the testing, Britt charged ahead with Henry and Leon's trial. And that trial was hardly a fair fight. You've got the "deadliest D.A." facing off against two disabled teenagers.
Steve Drizin Never stood a chance. It's going to be their word against the word of the police when this case goes to trial. How's somebody with a 56 IQ or 49 IQ supposed to try to match their wits with a prosecutor like Joe Freeman Britt?
Laura Nirider The heartbreaker was when Henry McCollum took the stand in his own defense. With his typical flair, Joe Freeman Britt handled that cross-examination himself. "Didn't that touch your soul at all," Britt asked, "when that little girl was down on the ground hollering?" "It didn't touch my soul," Henry answered, "because I didn't kill nobody." He added, "I want to tell you something, Joe Freeman. God got your judgment right in hell waiting for you." It wasn't enough. The jury convicted both Henry and Leon based on the confessions. After the verdicts came back, that fingerprint testing appears to have been canceled.
Vernetta Alston Joe Freeman Britt was much more concerned and laser focused on pursuing the death penalty against Henry McCollum and Leon Brown than he was in finding the real killer. They failed to pursue a fingerprint examination that I tend to think would have been very much determinative in this case. And I have to imagine that Joe Freeman Britt was part of that decision-making process.
Laura Nirider The defense was never even told that police had requested fingerprint testing. Instead, that information remained hidden. And Henry and Leon were sent to North Carolina's death row, right alongside Roscoe Artis. A few years later, in 1988, a court overturned Henry and Leon's convictions, but Britt retried them both separately in 1991. At Leon's second trial, the judge dismissed the murder charges against him. So Leon was convicted only of rape and sentenced to life in prison, not death. But Henry still faced murder charges, and he was soon convicted again. His attorneys hoped that, at least, they might be able to save his life this time, but they were wrong. When Henry's sentence was read, he sat silently with his head down on the table like a scared child. He had to go back to death row. The case of Sabrina Buie's murder was closed, but not forgotten. That disabled kid who became a murder suspect because some high schoolers thought he looked weird was soon being singled out by a justice on the United States Supreme Court. But Henry McCollum's case was getting attention for all the wrong reasons. It was 1994, and the Supreme Court was debating whether the United States should still have the death penalty. In a case from Texas, one justice, Harry Blackmon, wrote that the death penalty should be ruled unconstitutional. Justice Blackmon described how lethal injection works; how one human being injects drugs into another human's body in front of an audience until the condemned person dies in front of them. The justice wrote about his experience of trying, for 20 years, to develop rules that would ensure a "perfect" death penalty process. After nearly two decades, he declared the task impossible. No set of rules would be able to guarantee that we only execute the guilty and only after the guilty receive a fair process. "From this day forward," Justice Blackmon wrote, "I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death." Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing rebuttal; and this is where Henry and his brother Leon come in. "Lethal injection," Justice Scalia wrote, "looks pretty desirable" compared to some of the worst murder cases." He urged readers to consider "the case of the 11-year-old girl killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!" Justice Scalia was talking about the case of Sabrina Buie.
Vernetta Alston Justice Scalia said that if there's ever a case that warranted the death penalty, it's this one. Knowing what we know now about Henry and Leon's innocence, I think it completely undermines any legal or moral argument behind that statement. Because if this case could be held up as the poster case for the death penalty, and now we've discovered what an absolute mess of negligence and railroading it involved, then that means the entire system is undermined.
Laura Nirider The years ticked by, and that railroading started coming to light as the record of Joe Freeman Britt started getting some scrutiny. According to a report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, Britt committed misconduct in 14 cases. In Henry McCollum's case, the report said, he failed to notify the defense not only about the beer can fingerprints, but also about a cigarette butt found near Sabrina's body. In 2005, more than 20 years after Sabrina died, Henry's post-conviction lawyers asked for DNA testing on the traces of saliva left on the cigarette butt. That testing found a single male profile, and it didn't belong to Henry or Leon. That evidence should have been enough to exonerate them, right then and there.
Vernetta Alston The testing wasn't sophisticated enough at that point to match it to someone else. Basically, we knew that it wasn't Henry's. We knew that it wasn't Leons. But that's all that we knew.
Laura Nirider The profile couldn't be run through the national DNA database. And so Henry and Leon were denied exoneration, because their lawyers couldn't tell the state whose DNA it really was. It took nearly nine years for the case to regain momentum in 2014.
Vernetta Alston With the help of another inmate, Leon wrote to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and asked them to look into his case.
Steve Drizin The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is an independent state agency charged with investigating claims of actual innocence. But the commission doesn't have an agenda. It's not here to prove that the defendants did not commit this crime. It's here to find the truth. And it's the only statewide agency like it in the country.
Vernetta Alston The Innocence Inquiry Commission could say, we want to test this evidence. We want access to these records. We want access to these boxes of evidence that has been sitting on your shelf for 30 years. Hand them over to us right now. So that's an extraordinary power to have.
Steve Drizin There was no stone left unturned. They tested every hair. They tested wrappers found at the crime scene. They tested beer cans. They tested all of her clothing, her blouse, her shoes, her socks, her underpants. They tested cigarette butts.
Laura Nirider This time with more sophisticated testing. The cigarette butt DNA was able to be identified.
Vernetta Alston It wasn't Henry's. It wasn't Leon's.
Steve Drizin When they ran it through the North Carolina database, they got a hit. They got a hit to Roscoe Artis.
Vernetta Alston We knew of Roscoe Artis. We knew how eerily similar their crimes were.
Steve Drizin Roscoe Artis, who was living in the very same community and a month later committed a very similar crime.
Laura Nirider That was enough. Henry and Leon's lawyers, including Representative Alston, asked the court to throw out their convictions, based on DNA evidence of the real killer. And on September 2, 2014, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated in a Robeson County courtroom. As the burden of wrongful conviction was lifted from him, Leon Brown smiled big. But all Henry McCollum could do was sit back in his chair, take a deep breath, and close his eyes. Both men had served nearly 31 years in prison. Now, finally, they were going home.
Family Member Oh, you all don't know how long I have waited for this day. You all don't know!
Percy What's my name?
Henry McCollum Percy.
Percy That's right.
Michelle What's my name?
Henry McCollum Michelle.
Michelle That's right! Oh, he didn't forget us!
Family Member I love you all... Now you all do your thing; give me love...
Laura Nirider To make it doubly official. Both Henry and Leon received pardons from the North Carolina governor in June 2015. Joe Freeman Britt remained a firm believer in their guilt. When he heard about the pardons, Britt called the governor "a damn fool." Today, Roscoe Artis remains behind bars in North Carolina. On appeal, his death sentence was converted to life in prison. For his part, Joe Freeman Britt died in 2016. So here's the thing: During the 31 years that Henry spent on death row, he went through two capital trials. Twenty-four jurors evaluated the evidence against him, and they all voted to convict. Over the years, more than 20 judges reviewed the case against him and said they found nothing wrong. Twelve defense attorneys represented him over the years. They all did their jobs just as the system expects them to. If it weren't for the Innocence Inquiry Commission, Henry would probably be dead today, executed by lethal injection. But North Carolina is the only state with a commission like that, even though 27 other states have the death penalty. And the commission can only take a tiny fraction of the cases that are brought to it. So I have to agree with Supreme Court Justice Blackmon: We can have the best process in the world, but there is no such thing as a "perfect" death penalty.
Steve Drizin There are going to be errors in the fact that in some parts of a state, the death penalty is sought more frequently than in other parts of the state. There are going to be errors in the kinds of cases, whether they're high publicity cases or not, or in the race of the victim. There are going to be disparities in the way these decisions are made. It's a human endeavor. So there are going to be errors.
Laura Nirider Henry McCollum's not alone. To date, 172 people have been exonerated off death rows nationwide, including at least nine in North Carolina. Have we saved every innocent person sentenced to death? There's no way we haven't executed an innocent person. And it'll happen again, until we abolish the death penalty for good.
Vernetta Alston If someone hasn't written a letter on Leon's behalf to the Innocence Inquiry Commission, we would not be here having this conversation. Henry and Leon would not have been released. And our criminal justice system and our death penalty system, in particular, shouldn't and can't rely on luck to protect innocent people.
Laura Nirider Thanks to luck, perseverance, and good lawyering, Henry and Leon are survivors. Instead of living on death row, they can finally just live.
Henry McCollum I try to stay busy every day.
Laura Nirider That's Henry.
Henry McCollum My future wife, you know, she makes my day. She's sweet. When I get up in the morning, like 5:00 in the morning, you know, I make her coffee, which she drinks decaf... I drink mine's black with no sugar. It's a lot of food that I enjoy eating. I like turnip greens, collard greens; and I'll say, my lady is the best one, know how to fix that baked chicken for me. It feel good to breathe this air out here; it's good to have my freedom again.
Laura Nirider And here's Leon.
Leon Brown My favorite thing to do is really listen to the radio: oldies and R&B; classics; the 70s and 80s and the 90s; some of the old school songs. Songs that they don't make no more. In here, the group home, I try to treat everybody the way I would want to be treated. I guess that's why they like me the way they do. They keep me going. Keep me laughing, and, you know, night be here before you know it, the way the day be going, man. It's always something to do.
Laura Nirider This episode is dedicated to Henry and Leon, and to all the brave lawyers fighting to abolish the death penalty. Steve and I salute you. That's the story of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. Join us next week when we tell you about Tyra Patterson. Tyra was just 19 when she falsely confessed to stealing a necklace. But because of an arcane legal rule, that confession to stealing was turned into a conviction for murder. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava For Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.