Pardons Elude Men Freed After Decades in North Carolina Prison

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Henry L. McCollum awaiting word on a rental home in Fayetteville, N.C.

From The New York Times

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In the days leading up to the one last summer when Henry L. McCollum left North Carolina’s death row, it seemed that inmates and staff members could not stop talking about what awaited him beyond Central Prison.

The man who had spent almost his entire adult life awaiting execution would be able to go out for fried chicken, his favorite. Maybe he could strike a movie deal. At the very least, Mr. McCollum remembers, people told him that he would be a man of considerable wealth once the state paid him the $750,000 he could seek under North Carolina law because he had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for decades.

Mr. McCollum, 50, was released from prison last September after DNA evidence showed that he did not rape and murder a young girl in 1983. But since then, he and his half brother, Leon Brown, who was also exonerated and freed in the same case, have led anything but glamorous post-prison lives. Instead, because of legal decisions made to help accelerate their release, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory’s deliberate approach to granting what is known here as a pardon of innocence, both men have clung to a minimal existence, absent substantive remuneration, counseling or public aid in transitioning back to society.

Mr. McCollum and his half brother, Leon Brown, right, were released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

Mr. McCollum and his half brother, Leon Brown, right, were released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

“If the governor called me, I would tell him the reason why I need his pardon: I would tell him I deserve this pardon,” Mr. McCollum said. “I did 31 years in prison for a crime I did not commit. I could have given up a long time ago and told the state to kill me.”

So far, though, Mr. McCrory has not acted on the pardon applications of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, whose I.Q. scores were previously recorded in the 50s.

Because of the approach lawyers used to secure swifter releases for the two men, neither is entitled to wrongful conviction compensation until he gets a pardon.

The men were teenagers — Mr. McCollum was 19 and Mr. Brown, 15 — when they were arrested in Red Springs in September 1983 in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie. They were convicted about a year later.

But Judge Douglas B. Sasser of Robeson County Superior Court concluded last year that “no physical evidence, either at the time of their arrest or at any time since, linked Mr. McCollum or Mr. Brown to the scene or the commission of this crime.” Judge Sasser also found that the case against the men, who are black, was built “almost entirely” on the inconsistent confessions that they quickly recanted.

DNA recovered from the crime scene was linked decades later to Roscoe Artis, who is serving a life sentence for another 1983 rape and murder in Red Springs. (Mr. Artis has not been charged in the death of Sabrina Buie.)

 Henry L. McCollum in court in Lumberton, N.C., in September.


Henry L. McCollum in court in Lumberton, N.C., in September.

Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown each received $45 when they left prison and have lived on charity since. They lived for a time at a home here, where Mr. Brown slept on a couch in one room and Mr. McCollum’s mattress and box spring were on the floor in another.

Without money for a car or any knowledge about how to drive one, the men walked to a grocery to buy subsistence fare like canned potatoes and pork and beans. Mr. McCollum, who was a janitor in prison, said he wanted to apply for a job but was reluctant until he had a pardon.

Mr. Brown, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, is far more reticent than Mr. McCollum, but he talked of starting a church or a radio ministry.

Both say that until Mr. McCrory issues them pardons, they cannot fully set aside what happened over about 31 years.

Theresa A. Newman, a co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University Law School, said such sentiments were common among men who had been cleared by judges but not by governors. She said the mostly closed nature of the lengthy process could prove demoralizing.

“Just having some information would be very, very powerful, and I think it would hold these men up slightly,” said Ms. Newman, who is not involved in the McCollum or Brown case. “Why would they trust the state to do the right thing?”

Leon Brown listening to evidence during the same court hearing in September.

Leon Brown listening to evidence during the same court hearing in September.

In a statement last week, a spokesman for Mr. McCrory, Ryan Tronovitch, said: “Our extensive review is ongoing, and we need to ensure that we have gathered and considered all relevant information as part of our process. While we can’t put an exact time frame on when a decision will come, this is a top priority for Governor McCrory, and he has made that abundantly clear to those involved.”

Lawyers here say the pardon process in North Carolina has been an enigmatic one for far longer than Mr. McCrory’s term. But Ms. Newman said that when a client of hers had sought a pardon from Mr. McCrory, the governor had been an active participant while he weighed his options. He even “grilled” the man during an interview as part of a process that took about six months, she said.

What remains unclear is how, exactly, Mr. McCrory’s process unfolds, and how much he considers any opposition to pardon applications. In the cases of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, there is some, namely from the retired district attorney who prosecuted them.

The prosecutor, Joe Freeman Britt, who came to be known as the nation’s “deadliest D.A.” because he won death sentences so often, said, “There is no doubt in my mind that they’re not entitled to a pardon, and there is no doubt in my mind that they’re not entitled to compensation by the taxpayers.”

But the current district attorney, Johnson Britt (a distant relative of his predecessor), supported the men’s bids for freedom last year and told Judge Sasser that “the state does not have a case” and would not prosecute them again.

That support is partly why a lawyer for the men, Scott Brettschneider, said he hoped that “there isn’t something more here than just bureaucracy” as they waited for the governor’s decision.

Recently, a bank bet that the delay was only administrative, and it wrote a large enough loan that the men last week began renting a home where each has a bedroom. Mr. McCollum, who, since leaving prison, has sometimes referred to a bedroom as a cell, picked one at the top of a stairwell.

“This is my room right here,” he said softly as he looked around one afternoon. “This is my room.”

He said his favorite feature of the room, more than twice the size of his former cell on death row, is the lock on the wooden door. He can lock it — and unlock it — himself.