Thursday, September 18, 2014

NC Innocence Inquiry Commission a lifesaver for innocent, death row inmates

The following opinion by Lyle C. May was published on September 17, 2014 by the Charlotte News & Observer.

On Sept. 2, 2014, after spending 30 years on death row, a travesty of justice was averted when Henry Lee McCollum was acquitted of the 1983 rape and murder of Sabrina Buie. Henry’s brother, Leon Brown, was also acquitted of the rape and released. Had it not been for Brown’s 2009 application to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, McCollum would still be on death row.

In fact, had it not been for the connection between the two brothers in the Buie case, the commission would not have reviewed Henry’s part. For some inane reason the commission cannot investigate death penalty cases until a prisoner’s appeals have been exhausted, and the defendant files a claim. The problem with this is when a death row prisoner exhausts his or her appeals, they are executed. How incredibly fortunate for Henry there has been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina since 2007.

This was too close. As it stands, Henry and Leon had their youth stolen from them by overzealous, blind SBI agents, impressionable jurors, ineffective attorneys and a prosecutor who brags about his oratory power to persuade people rather than relying upon the facts or evidence in a case. How many more cases on death row are just like Henry McCollum’s? This is not an aberration, his is the eighth acquittal on North Carolina’s death row.

The difference between the previous seven acquittals and Henry is that an objective commission had a hand in clearing Henry and Leon of any wrongdoing. The first seven had to rely on their appellate attorneys and the minimal resources available to them. One wonders why Henry’s attorneys, after three decades, were incapable of freeing him; or why, with a little bit of digging, exculpatory DNA evidence was so easily found by the commission. These questions may seem complex, but they underline a common problem with many appellate attorneys who represent death row prisoners: The bare minimum is the status quo.

In Henry’s case, the bare minimum in 1991 put him back on death row after a new trial. His attorney tried to coerce Henry to confess to a crime he did not commit. This is inexcusable. With so many people against indigent, intellectually challenged defendants like Henry McCollum, it’s a miracle this man made it home alive. All glory to God indeed, Henry.

Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence, mentioned some lessons learned from the exoneration of Henry McCollum. What the public needs to be aware of is that the horrible circumstances of injustice in the Buie case are a culture in North Carolina death penalty cases, not some isolated event. Maybe, if the Innocence Commission were to work in conjunction with appellate attorneys to defend their clients, 31-year prison terms by innocent men can be avoided. At the very least the commission can demonstrate what it means to be true representatives of justice.

Lyle C. May is a death row inmate at Central Prison in Raleigh. He received two death sentences for the 1997 double murder in Asheville of Valerie Sue Riddle and her son, Kelly Mark Laird Jr.

Darryl Burton: Two recent exonerations cause new concern about the death penalty

The following opinion by Darryl Burton was published on September 16, 2014 by the Kansas City Star.

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.

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Exonerating the innocent: Ohio’s attorney general must start tracking, and learning from, DNA exonerations

The following editorial was published by the Toledo Blade on September 14, 2014.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine started calling for old DNA evidence in late 2011, encouraging Ohio’s 800 law enforcement agencies to clear their testable sexual assault evidence shelves.

It was a prudent and long overdue move. Over the past two decades, DNA technology has become an invaluable tool for law enforcement. It was shameful that so many vital rape kits were gathering dust in police property and storage rooms.

Since then, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation has tested more than 4,700 previously untested rape kits — many 10 to 20 years old. Of those, more than 3,100 have been tested since Oct. 1.

Mr. DeWine has touted the fact — and rightfully so — that, thanks to his initiative and follow-up work by local law enforcement, more than 200 people have been charged for sexual assaults they allegedly committed years ago. Arresting people who otherwise would not have been caught for horrific crimes is something the attorney general’s office ought to be proud of.

But DNA evidence doesn’t just catch the guilty. It also exonerates the innocent. This month, for example, North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate, Henry McCollum, and his younger half brother walked out as free men, three decades after they were convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl.

A judge overturned the convictions after another man’s DNA, found on a cigarette butt left near the body of the slain girl, contradicted the case put forth by prosecutors. No physical evidence ever connected the convicted men to the crime, but police had coerced confessions from the two when they were scared teenagers.

Mr. McCollum likely would have been put to death years ago, if not for lawsuits that have blocked executions in North Carolina since 2006.

Such horrific miscarriages of justice occur more often than most people realize. When they are righted, they are another cause to celebrate the technology that made it possible. They are also an occasion to learn what went wrong in the case and correct flawed policies and procedures.

Unlike new evidence that results in convictions and arrests, however, the attorney general’s office does not track cases in which DNA evidence exonerated suspects or freed prisoners.

The Ohio Innocence Project has helped free 17 people, largely with DNA evidence. This year in Ohio, for example, Dewey Jones was exonerated after DNA evidence proved his innocence. A Summit County judge dismissed aggravated murder and robbery charges against Mr. Jones, who spent 20 years in prison.

Such DNA exonerations are as important as those cases that result in arrests and convictions. In fact, they are more important, given the underlying principles that gird the U.S. criminal justice system. They include the presumption of innocence until judged guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Those principles are based on the idea that convicting the innocent is an even greater travesty than absolving the guilty.

Even so, despite those precious safeguards, inept indigent defense systems, faulty eyewitness identifications, false coerced confessions, and numerous other flaws continue to put innocent people in prison, sometimes for life.

When righted by DNA evidence, such cases can provide the attorney general’s office, and law enforcement agencies across the state, with textbook examples of what can go wrong during a suspect’s arrest, trial, and conviction. Likewise, they can suggest ways to improve the system. That’s why it’s imperative that the Ohio Attorney General’s office start to track and study DNA exonerations.

Law enforcement agencies are often notoriously reluctant to acknowledge mistakes, partly because they believe they undermine public confidence in the system. But such mistakes are too important to ignore, and learning from them would only increase the people’s faith in the criminal justice system.

Police and prosecutors must acknowledge and use the enormous benefits of DNA technology, either way they tip the scales of justice.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lawrence Hellman: How many innocent people are in Oklahoma prisons?

The following editorial by Lawrence Hellman was published by on September 13, 2014.

Oklahoma’s prison population is about 26,000. Some of the inmates are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

How do we know?

Throughout America, innocent people are being exonerated at an alarming rate on the basis of new evidence of innocence. A record 91 exonerations occurred in 2013. Since 1989, there have been more than 1,400 exonerations in America, including 27 in Oklahoma.

So we know that Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has made some mistakes. Not a lot of mistakes, but some serious ones. It is sobering to learn that eight of Oklahoma’s exonerees were on death row at the time of their release from prison.

It’s simply unrealistic to believe that all of the mistakes have been discovered. For one thing, many years can go by before the mistakes come to light. The average time between conviction and exoneration for the 27 Oklahoma cases that we know about is more than nine years. In addition, until recently, there was no organization in our state dedicated to reviewing inmates’ claims of innocence. Now there is.

The Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law began operations in 2011. Since opening, the project has received more than 1,000 requests for assistance. Of course, not all of these claims of innocence are valid or capable of being established. With its small staff — supported entirely from private donations — it will take years to review the cases. Hundreds of inquiries still await an initial review.

So far, a few dozen cases have been identified that warrant further investigation. Legal actions seeking judicial relief have begun for two clients whose claims have merit. Pursuing these cases will be a slow and deliberate process — as it should be. More cases will be filed as resources allow.

How many innocent people are there in Oklahoma’s prisons? The courts will answer this question over the coming months and years.

Hellman is executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. The project’s benefit, “A Night for the Innocent,” is Sept. 26 at Will Rogers Theater. For information, go to or call (405) 208-7101.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Freeman, SD Courier: Another powerful argument against the death penalty

The following editorial was published by the Freeman, SD Courier on September 9, 2014.  Freeman Courier editorials reflect the opinion of news editor Jeremy Waltner and publisher Tim L. Waltner.

Four months ago, a Courier editorial called into question the practice of capital punishment. Problems with the execution of Clayton Lockett in McAlester, Okla., April 29 prompted the call to abolish the death penalty.

There was outrage over Lockett’s botched execution — a collapsed vein interrupted the process — but the desired end result was achieved when about half an hour after it was halted, Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack.

That incident led to widespread calls to halt lethal injections as a method of capital punishment until the process becomes better understood and more transparent.

But, as the May 7 editorial noted, that outrage is misplaced. Either we embrace putting someone to death as the ultimate act of justice — the brutality of the method be damned — or the United States joins other civilized nations around the world that have abolished the death penalty.

Last week there was another powerful example of why abolishing the death penalty is the right course to pursue.

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were arrested in 1983 and charged with the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs, N.C.

Half-brothers, McCollum and Brown were just 19 and 15 at the time. There was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime scene. But after lengthy police interrogations both confessed to the crime.

Although they recanted shortly after, they were convicted — largely on the basis of their false confessions.
Until last week, McCollum, now 50, had been on death row for 30 years, longer than anyone else in North Carolina history.

Until last week, Brown, now 46, was serving a life sentence.

Today McCollum and Brown are free men. DNA evidence implicated Roscoe Artis, a known sex offender whom the police had not investigated, despite the fact that he lived next to the crime scene. Artis is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison on a separate conviction, a rape and murder that happened less than a month after Buie’s rape and murder.

The convictions of McCollum and Brown were vacated last week and the two men were ordered released; they were freed from prison last Wednesday.

This turn of events is the result of an investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that found no DNA evidence at the crime scene that could be traced back to McCollum or Brown.

While justice was finally served, there are lots of questions including, why do innocent people confess to something they didn’t do.

In his book Convicting the Innocent (published five years ago), Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law noted that 40 of the 250 wrongful convictions happened when innocent defendants confessed to crimes they did not commit.

In his study, Garrett found 14 of the 40 were mentally disabled or borderline mentally disabled, and three more were mentally ill. Thirteen of the 40 were juveniles. Nearly all were interrogated for more than three hours at a sitting. Seven described their involvement in the crime as coming to them in a “dream” or “vision.” Seven were told they had failed polygraph tests.

McCollum and Brown certainly fit the profile; they were teenagers and were considered mentally disabled; their IQs have consistently tested in the 50-60 range.

“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” said Ken Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

“It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”

The sobering reality is that the loss could have been worse. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that McCollum was on death row. While his exoneration can’t restore the 30 years he lost in jail for something he did not do, at least he can live the rest of his life in relative freedom.

It’s difficult to find a stronger argument against the death penalty than the reality that Henry McCollum, a mentally challenged young man, might well have been put to death for something he didn’t do, had it not been for the dilligence of people who saw the injustice in how the case against him and Leon Brown had been handled.

As noted here in May, the United States should join every other Western nation and bring an end to using the death penalty.