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.