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DNA Evidence Clears Men of 1983 North Carolina Murder but Prosecutor Is Unrepentant About His Role

Screen shot of Southern Magazine cover which featured Joe Freeman Britt, who zealously prosecuted Brown and McCollum

DNA evidence has cleared two African-American mentally disabled men, who were convicted of a rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina in 1983. A judge ordered the men be released from jail, and the district attorney admitted the state had no case and would not try to prosecute the men again. But the original prosecutor in the case was displeased by the development.

It had been thirty years since 50-year-old Henry Lee McCollum and 46-year-old Leon Brown were convicted in the case of Sabrina Buie. The half brothers were exonerated five years after Brown applied to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency setup in 2006 to review “post-conviction claims of innocence.”

The Innocence Inquiry had a cigarette found at the crime scene tested for DNA. The results matched Roscoe Artis, who was convicted in August 1984 of a similar case of rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl.

According to The News Observer, the Innocence Inquiry also “turned up hidden evidence. Three days before McCollum and Brown went on trial in 1984, the Red Springs police requested that the [State Bureau of Investigation] examine the unidentified fingerprint on the beer can to see if it matched” Artis. But SBI “never did the work.”

Anyone wondering how this miscarriage of justice happened could point the finger at fire and brimstone prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt, who was the district attorney who prosecuted the case. By the 1980s, he had been dubbed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s deadliest prosecutor” because he had won 44 death sentences.

Britt reacted to news of the innocent men being freed and was unrepentant about his role in their wrongful conviction.

“It’s a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” and, “That case was fought with powerful arguments, but apparently the district attorney just threw up his hands and capitulated,” Britt declared.

Last week, when the possibility of exoneration arose, Britt said, “You find a cigarette, you say it has Roscoe Artis’ DNA on it, but so what?”

“It’s just a cigarette, and absent some direct connection to the actual killing, what have you got? Do you have exoneration? I don’t think so.”

The “main evidence” against Brown and McCollum was always weak. All prosecutors had were “two detailed confessions, written in longhand by law enforcement and signed by each brother.” The “confessions” were alleged to be coerced from Brown and McCollum, who were 15-years-old and 19-years-old at the time.

During trial, Britt engaged in courtroom theatrics by describing what had happened to Buie in the “most graphic terms.” He cried out “Mommy” and then described the five minutes it took for her to drown in her blood. He sat down in a silent courtroom and then “watched the clock until five minutes had ticked by.”

This is how Britt was known to prosecute cases. In another murder case, he reportedly waved a Bible over his head and quoted passages that called for death for murderers.

The Associated Press, in 1986, noted that his theatrics sometimes got him in trouble with appellate courts and described how he would prowl the courtroom like an “outraged Minotaur.”

“He storms, scowls, gesticulates wildly and quotes the Old Testament with authority,” the AP added.

Here’s how Britt grilled McCollum during his trial:

“Did you tell him, ‘Sabrina started hollering, ‘Mommy, Mommy’? ” Britt asked. “Did you tell him that?”

“No,” McCollum said.

“Didn’t that touch your soul at all when that little girl was down on the ground hollering?”

“It didn’t touch my soul because I didn’t kill nobody.”

“It doesn’t touch your soul now, does it?”

“Because I ain’t killed nobody. I want to tell you something, Joe Freeman, God got your judgment right in hell waiting for you.”

Britt went through his entire confession and McCollum recanted his confession 226 times before the cross-examination was over.

McCollum also tried to leave the witness stand. The judge would not let him leave, which led McCollum to ask, “Do you feel how I feel, to get hanged in the courtroom for something I didn’t do?”

Part of what made McCollum a suspect was that a high school student had suggested he did not “act right and stared at women.” But that behavior could be explained by the fact that Brown’s IQ, when tested, was found to be 49 and 54. (At the time, 74 was considered the cutoff for “mild retardation.”)

Britt told the Virginian-Pilot-Ledger-Star in 1987 that Brown’s mental disability didn’t matter.

“He who runs with the pack shares in the kill,” Britt said, quoting Jack London. “Leon Brown was at a party earlier that night bragging how the boys up North—New Jersey or wherever he’s from—would get girls and drag them into alleys and kill them. That don’t sound like someone who is borderline retarded, and it certainly didn’t sound that way to the jury.”

The year prior the state made the age of 16 the youngest age that the state could legally execute minors. Yet, as the Virginian-Pilot-Ledger-Star acknowledged, “Because of politicians’ horror at the heinousness of the Buie murder, Brown was not included in the death penalty exemption.”

Conservative Democrat Henson Barnes had fought for legislation that would raise the age, however, when the House in North Carolina introduced a bill allowing retroactive application, Barnes made Brown’s case an issue. As he said, he would not have minded voting for the death penalty in Brown’s case.

Stein found Brown’s exclusion from the legislation “particularly cruel considering the circumstances of his trial and conviction, which emotional legislators hardly studied in detail.” The jury in the trial ignored a United States Supreme Court precedent that said age was supposed to be a mitigating factor in a case like this. Plus, there was no incriminating evidence found—such as hair or semen, for example. Only thing connecting Brown and McCollum to the crime were the “confessions.”

In 1986, Britt explained to the AP that he did not believe in rehabilitation. “Once in a while you may find one who has rehabilitated himself, but it is very rare. One half of all the criminal acts in the United States are committed by people on probational parole, which is astonishing. It’s an old saw and just not true that people don’t commit repeated murders.”He also shared, “You have to have a jury with the right mindset and then you have to massage their perceptions. What I want are salt-of-the-earth working stiffs, people who have experience with life and knew what it’s really like out there, who have from time to time brushed up against murder and mayhem and robbery and rape and know just how serious the problem is.”

Given this mindset, it is perhaps not all that surprising that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia accused Justice Henry Blackmun of avoiding these type of cases when the court heard McCollum’s appeal.

“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 argued for the death penalty for McCollum, even though Blackmun pointed out, “He was not the one who initiated the rape, the one who proposed the murder, or the one who actually committed the murder. Nonetheless, he was the only one convicted of murder and the only one sentenced to die.”

The mindset promoted by Britt also enabled the North Carolina Republican Party, which “pasted McCollum’s mug shot on campaign mailers just before the general election, attacking Democratic support for the Racial Justice Act” during the 2010 election.

“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.”

Remarkably, a state agency was there for the two men to rise above toxic politics and not let emotions get in the way of freeing innocent men.

But it is not difficult to see that abuse of prosecutorial discretion played a key factor, and, once Britt had it in his head, who he believed was responsible, it did not matter what other evidence suggested. His job was to convince a jury with bombastic arguments that they were the rapists and killers so he could get another death penalty conviction under his belt.

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DNA Evidence Clears Men of 1983 North Carolina Murder but Prosecutor Is Unrepentant About His Role

Screen shot of Southern Magazine cover which featured Joe Freeman Britt, who zealously prosecuted Brown and McCollum

DNA evidence has cleared two African-American mentally disabled men, who were convicted of a rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina in 1983. A judge ordered the men be released from jail, and the district attorney admitted the state had no case and would not try to prosecute the men again. But the original prosecutor in the case was displeased by the development.

It had been thirty years since 50-year-old Henry Lee McCollum and 46-year-old Leon Brown were convicted in the case of Sabrina Buie. The half brothers were exonerated five years after Brown applied to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency setup in 2006 to review “post-conviction claims of innocence.”

The Innocence Inquiry had a cigarette found at the crime scene tested for DNA. The results matched Roscoe Artis, who was convicted in August 1984 of a similar case of rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl.

According to The News Observer, the Innocence Inquiry also “turned up hidden evidence. Three days before McCollum and Brown went on trial in 1984, the Red Springs police requested that the [State Bureau of Investigation] examine the unidentified fingerprint on the beer can to see if it matched” Artis. But SBI “never did the work.”

Anyone wondering how this miscarriage of justice happened could point the finger at fire and brimstone prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt, who was the district attorney who prosecuted the case. By the 1980s, he had been dubbed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s deadliest prosecutor” because he had won 44 death sentences.

Britt reacted to news of the innocent men being freed and was unrepentant about his role in their wrongful conviction.

“It’s a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” and, “That case was fought with powerful arguments, but apparently the district attorney just threw up his hands and capitulated,” Britt declared.

Last week, when the possibility of exoneration arose, Britt said, “You find a cigarette, you say it has Roscoe Artis’ DNA on it, but so what?”

“It’s just a cigarette, and absent some direct connection to the actual killing, what have you got? Do you have exoneration? I don’t think so.”

The “main evidence” against Brown and McCollum was always weak. All prosecutors had were “two detailed confessions, written in longhand by law enforcement and signed by each brother.” The “confessions” were alleged to be coerced from Brown and McCollum, who were 15-years-old and 19-years-old at the time.

During trial, Britt engaged in courtroom theatrics by describing what had happened to Buie in the “most graphic terms.” He cried out “Mommy” and then described the five minutes it took for her to drown in her blood. He sat down in a silent courtroom and then “watched the clock until five minutes had ticked by.”

This is how Britt was known to prosecute cases. In another murder case, he reportedly waved a Bible over his head and quoted passages that called for death for murderers.

The Associated Press, in 1986, noted that his theatrics sometimes got him in trouble with appellate courts and described how he would prowl the courtroom like an “outraged Minotaur.”

“He storms, scowls, gesticulates wildly and quotes the Old Testament with authority,” the AP added. (more…)

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DNA Evidence Clears Men of 1983 North Carolina Murder but Prosecutor Is Unrepentant About His Role

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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