The news from North Carolina’s death row this week was stunning. A convicted killer named Henry Lee McCollum, a man whose crimes were cited by Justice Antonin Scalia as justifying capital punishment itself, was cleared by DNA evidence. McCollum, now 50 years old, had spent 30 years behind bars, most of the time on death row, for a crime he did not commit.
In theory, this should raise difficult questions about the death penalty, the criminal justice system, and the process that put an innocent man on death row.
North Carolina State House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), currently his party’s U.S. Senate candidate, doesn’t seem inclined to ask any of those tough questions. Alice Ollstein reported yesterday:
Now middle aged, [McCollum and his brother] have been in prison – one of them on death row – since they were teenagers, wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a child. When ThinkProgress asked Tillis if anything needs to change in light of this case, he said that because they were eventually exonerated, “It’s an example of how we have protections in our judicial system in North Carolina.”“I feel very, very sorry for them and I’m glad to know they’re out,” he said. “At least the process worked, it just took too long.”
That’s the wrong answer. To see innocent men sent to death row, locked up for most of their lives for a crime they didn’t commit, as evidence of an effective system with adequate “protections” is to miss the significance of this story in a spectacular way.
In this case, local law enforcement “somehow overlooked” the actual killer, “even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.”
Instead, McCollum and his brother were pursued by a hyper-aggressive prosecutor, who built a weak case around “coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs” who were questioned without a lawyer present.
These young men’s lives were shattered. The fact that they were freed 30 years later is hardly proof that “the process worked.”
Vernetta Alston at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation told ThinkProgress, “At every juncture, the system failed Henry and Leon. They were coerced into giving false confessions. These two boys could hardly read. They were very intellectually disabled. They were manipulated and threatened, and only signed the statements because law enforcement told them they could go home. It’s unacceptable.”
It makes Thom Tillis’ satisfaction impossible to understand.