Guilty Until Proven Innocent
On September 28, 1983 the body of an eleven-year-old girl named Sabrina was found in a North Carolina soybean field. She had been raped, suffocated, and left to die. Later that day police officers arrested two boys who had recently moved to town; the boys were 15 and 19 and both mentally deficient. Police interrogated the two for over five hours, eventually leading the younger boy to confess. With the mental capacity of a nine year old, no attorney present, and his mother crying in the hallway, police had the older boy sign a confession.
On September 2, 2014 the two boys, now grown men, were cleared of all charges by DNA evidence. Henry McCollum, now 50 years old, and his half brother Leon Brown, now 46, witnessed their convictions being overturned by Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser. Family and friends of the two were present to celebrate and breathe a gigantic sigh of relief. While Leon was originally sentenced to life in prison, Henry was sentenced to death.
History of the Case
A District Attorney named Joe Freeman Britt tried the original case. He was once profiled by 60 Minutes for being known as the deadliest district attorney; he earned this nickname by seeking the death penalty so often. The physical evidence was non-existent during this trial. Britt told The News & Observer this past September that he still believes the boys were guilty.
Weeks after Sabrina was murdered, another young woman, an 18 year old, was raped and murdered in a strikingly similar crime, in the same town. The man convicted was named Roscoe Artis. He lived near the soybean field where Sabrina was found. Initially, he claimed he didnt know Sabrina; later he changed his story and claimed she would visit him at home. Recently, a cigarette butt from the crime scene with DNA evidence pointing to Artis was used to petition for the exoneration of McCollum and Brown.
Defense attorneys took McCollums case to the United States Supreme Court in 1994. The Justices refused to grant certiorari, meaning they would not hear the case, but not all nine Justices agreed. In his dissent, Justice Blackmun claimed that the mental capacities of the boys alone called their confessions into question. Justice Scalia claimed that it was hard to argue against the death penalty due to the brutal nature of the crime. In later years the Supreme Court would declare the death penalty for minors and mentally disabled unconstitutional.
The current district attorney, Johnson Britt, stated that the men would not be retried as the State simply did not have a case. He went on to say that it was his duty to seek justice, not to just get convictions.
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