Twenty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was considering a Texas case about capital punishment, and at the time, then-Justice Harry Blackmun made the argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
Justice Antonin Scalia pushed back, highlighting a convicted killer named Henry Lee McCollum as an obvious example of a man who deserved to be put to death. "For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat," Scalia wrote
in a 1994 ruling. "How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!"
For Scalia, McCollum was the perfect example -- a murderer whose actions were so heinous that his crimes stood as a testament to the merit of capital punishment itself.
Yesterday, a judge ordered McCollum's release. Scalia's model example was innocent
Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released Tuesday by a judge here. The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities 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.
McCollum, now 50 years old, had spent 30 years behind bars, most of the time on death row.
It's worth noting that Scalia wasn't the only one who used this case to advance a point. As the New York Times' piece added, as recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party used a McCollum photo on campaign fliers to attack a Democrat as "soft on crime."
Except, of course, McCollum didn't do it.
The Associated Press report
Lawyers for the two men said the new testing leaves no doubt about their clients' innocence.... Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, has represented Henry McCollum for 20 years. "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," Rose said.
The judge in the case ordered McCollum's release yesterday, but because of paperwork, he won't literally go free until today.