“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall:
Some run from brakes of ice, and answer none:
And some condemned for a fault alone.”
(Measure For Measure, act 2, sc.1)
On September 5, 2014, Henry McCollum and his half brother Leon Brown left their North Carolina prison– where they spent 30 years for a crime they did not commit. Before being released, McCollum was still on death row. A Superior Court Judge overturned the 1983 conviction for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, as new DNA evidence showed there was no longer a credible evidence against them.
The case is not rare, in real life and in classical literature (e.g. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”), but here it acquires a special significance and “it calls too many curses on their heads, that were their authors” (1). Meaning on the head of the original characters who built up a false case, essentially “willingly and willfully” – to adopt the legal jargon, habitually aimed at the accused rather than the accusers.
There are two, actually three, dimensions of this case. First is the actual sequence of events. The victim’s body was found in a field outside the impoverished town of Lumberton, Robeson County, North Carolina. Like the defendants, the victim was poor and African-American. In the competition for poverty, Robeson ranks 89th out of the 100 counties of the State. And the poorer section of this already poor county is mostly African-American.
Henry McCollum, then 19, was detained because a local 17-year-old girl had said she didn’t like the way he stared at women in the community. When his brother, then 15, went to see why Henry had been detained, the police detained him too. Both were intellectually disabled and were questioned for several hours until about 2 am. Those unfamiliar with police practice cannot probably visualize the feeling of utter powerlessness against the psychological warfare, the verbal abuse and the physical threats – routine armaments for obtaining a confession. That defendants have the right to counsel, was an idea that could not possibly cross the mind of the two boys.
They were easily manipulated and told that if they would sign a police-prepared statement, they could go home. Whereupon, after several hours of grilling interrogation, both boys signed the statement, hand-written by the police and that they could not even read. The statements were filled with details that, at the time, were only known to law enforcement officials. Henry and Leo thought that they could go home, but, as they quickly learned, that that wasn’t the case, they were arrested and tried.
Here are the words of Henry McCollum, given in an interview with a journalist who had become interested in the case. They could come out of a novel of Mark Twain,
“I was like sitting in a chair. He got all up in my face, hollering at me. That kind of—that kind of shook me. It scared me up a little bit, because I had never been in no police station before, being questioned by a police. Then he’s talking about, “You know you killed that girl. You know you killed that girl.” I said, “Man, I didn’t kill nobody, man. I ain’t seen that girl that night.” And he said, “When I come back in here, you better tell me the truth,” and all that, right? I said, “I told you the truth, where I was that night.” He said, “No, you told me you was at home.” I said, “That was where I was: at home. I wasn’t out no 12:30 at night.” I’d say he came back in like five minutes later. I had made up my mind, right, because I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me and all that crazy stuff. So, what I did, I gave him a false name and made up a story, this is the way the crime happened, when a crime didn’t really happen that way and all that, right? Because I was trying to go home, I gave him false confession.”
The local prosecutor at the time, was Joe Freeman Britt and the office of prosecution is usually considered a stepping stone towards higher ranking government positions. Britt was building a reputation as a law-and-order politician. A popular TV program introduced him as “America’s deadliest District Attorney” He was proud of setting a Guinness World Record with more than 50 death sentences handed down in his jurisdiction. That included Velma Barfield, the first woman to be executed in the United States after the resumption of capital punishment in 1976. Barfield died by lethal injection in 1984, the same year that McCallum and Brown were convicted and sentenced to death.
A month after the killing of Sabrina Buie, another man, living close to the field where Sabrina Buie’s body was found, confessed to a similar rape and murder of an 18 year old girl. The police requested to check the fingerprints of the confessed murderer, by the name of Roscoe Artis, against those taken from the scene where Sabrina’s body was found. The request was made 3 days before the trial of the two brothers. The prosecutor’s office did not comply with the request – it is uncertain whether it didn’t through negligence or plainly refused. Thirty years later, analysis of a cigarette butt found by Buie’s body revealed the DNA of Roscoe Artis. And Artis confessed to having seen the original victim the night of the murder.
McCollum never stopped claiming his innocence. On leaving the prison he said,
“Since I have been here, I have never stopped believing that one day I would be able to walk out that door. I never stopped believing that. A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything. I never got a chance to fulfill those dreams, never got the chance, because the people took 30 years away from me, and they destroyed my life. Now, I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”
The second dimension of this case has to do, from what we know, with the modality of career advancement in the law enforcement field and, by extension, in politics. The prosecutor is rewarded not by the quality of his indictments but by the number of his successful prosecutions. Where ‘success’ is divorced from a concern about whether the condemned man is guilty or innocent, as amply proven in this and in multiple other cases.
We know that the eye of power is elevated towards higher stations, and seldom descends to examine the actions of those who are placed below the level of its notice. The two defendants were ‘non-people’, instruments for career advancement, much as soldiers are cannon fodder and tools for the armament-industry’s profit. Besides, power is never completely disjoined from vanity. And what better opportunity, in this case, to combine the quest of power with the anticipated display of vanity and with the habitual contempt of the poor.
Equally, the police’s investigative success is measured by the number of obtained confessions irrespectively of how they are obtained, especially if the investigated are poor and disenfranchised. The combined paths for the career advancement of police investigators and prosecutors reinforce each other. They are the “two silver currents, that when they join, do glorify the banks that bound them in” (2). And they are a recipe for injustice – which may partly explains why 2.3 million people in prison.
One ironic and almost macabre twist surrounds this case. In 1994 the US Supreme Court refused to review the death penalty against Henry McCollum. Justice Harry Blackmun, in his opinion disagreeing with the Court’s refusal, announced his opposition to capital punishment. Blackmun pointed out that McCollum had the mental age of a nine-year-old.
In reply, ultra-right Justice Antonin Scalia “full of wise saws and modern instances” (3) said that the circumstances of Sabrina Buie’s death were so outrageous that execution was appropriate. And that McCollum’s “quiet death by lethal injection” would be “enviable” compared to the fate of his victim.
Which proves that in a state that can so easily despise its citizens, especially when poor, fortitude is intimidated and wisdom confounded; resistance shrinks from an alliance with rebellion, and the villain can remain secure in the robes of the magistrate.
The third related consideration is that the same contempt for the poor, as displayed in this case by the prosecutor, extends to whole peoples, Palestinians, Iraqis, Vietnamese, Libyans and others, guilty of existing or of not wanting to exist as slaves.
It is a world vision seemingly constructed during a diabolical delirium.
(1) King Henry VIII
(2) King John
(3) As You Like It
In the play. Escalus comments on the death sentence meted by Angelo on Claudius, condemned to death for having seduced a girl.
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