Of all the men and women on death row in North Carolina, Henry McCollum’s guilty verdict looked airtight. He had signed a confession full of grisly details. Written in crude and unapologetic language, it told the story of four boys, he among them, raping and suffocating 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. His younger brother, Leon Brown, also admitted involvement in the crime. Both were sentenced to death in 1984.
Leon was later resentenced to life in prison. But Henry remained on death row for 30 years and became Exhibit A in the defense of the death penalty. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to continue capital punishment nationwide. During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers, the example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed.
What almost no one saw — not even his top-notch defense attorneys — was that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were innocent. In 2014, both were exonerated by DNA evidence and, in 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted them a rare pardon of innocence.
In a new report, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation — which represented McCollum for the last two decades he spent on death row — tells the story of how two intellectually disabled teenagers were pressured into signing the false confessions that sent them to death row and how they were finally able to prove their innocence.
Henry and Leon’s case is not so much a lesson in how wrongful convictions are uncovered as it is a warning of how easily they can be missed entirely. If not for a complex and unlikely chain of events that unfolded over decades, Henry and Leon would likely have remained in prison for the rest of their lives. Henry might have been executed.