Henry, now 50 years old, was one of the longest serving death row inmates in North Carolina at the time of his release from Central Prison in Raleigh. Leon, now 46, was serving a life sentence garnered through a re-conviction in Maury Correctional Institution outside Greenville.
In 1983, 11 year-old Sabrina Buie was found raped and murdered in a soybean field in Robeson County, N.C. surrounded by beer cans, cigarette butts and two bloodied sticks. The physical evidence, including fingerprints on the beer cans and DNA evidence on the cigarette butts, did not match either of the brothers.
So how did the brothers end up in prison?
The local police department picked up a 19 year-old Henry and 15 year-old Leon on the basis of sheer racism and an alleged tip from a high school student. These two young men, who are considered mentally disabled, were then interrogated for over four hours from shouting cops who threatened severe violence if they did not confess to the crime. Both confessions were handwritten by the police and no parent was present during the interrogations. This was the very first time they had ever been brought to a police station in their lives.
When Henry asked who had, “brought up his name,” in association with the crime during the interrogation the cop replied, “None of your Black business!”
Henry described in a taped interview that the police repeatedly got in his face and terrified him.
This same cop went on to lie and tell Henry that if he would confess he could go home and Henry maintains, “I just made up a story and told it to them. My mind was focused on getting out of that police station.”
The man who actually raped and murdered Sabrina was put in prison for a rape and murder of a 16 year-old one mile from the soybean field just one month later. This man, Roscoe Artis, was actually a suspect in Sabrina’s case. A request to match fingerprints from the beer can to Roscoe three days before the trial of Henry and Leon was never carried out.
In court, prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt even refused to inform the defense that a fingerprint request had been made. This should come as no surprise from a man listed in the Guinness Book of World Records at one time as the “deadliest prosecutor” for securing the death penalty for nearly 50 people.
State, racism and careers
Many people who see these men exonerated after thirty years are forced to wonder what exactly went wrong with the justice system. The truth is that the only thing that went wrong was the fact that the justice system was caught in its routine acts – racism, coercion and lies. Or stated differently – nothing went wrong at all according to how the justice system was intended to function.
The history of the development of the police, courts, and prisons in the United States is intricately linked to the history of exploitation of enslaved Black people and subjugation of other oppressed nationalities across the country. The socialist position is that the entire purpose of the justice system is to repress those communities most likely to rebel.
But another condition rarely discussed is the role that is played by the ambitions of every police officer, prosecutor and judge. As a career under the capitalist system, if their task is allegedly to “fight crime” then it is clear their goal is to seek out, arrest, convict and sentence anyone who breaks the law.
Whenever their incompetence or lack of interest prevents them from finding a person who has actually committed a crime, they will simply pick up the next person who remotely fits the profile and attempt to prove to both their boss and society that they are accomplishing their goals. This is done on a broader level by police departments across the country with the manipulation of crime statistics to justify increased budgets and acquisition of more equipment. Whenever a prosecutor cares more about their record of “wins” and “losses” in court in order to advance their career it becomes clear why they are willing to circumvent their legal responsibility to share evidence. Judges and politicians continue to use capital punishment and issues of racism as a political football for their careers.
In fact, Henry and Leon have been that football in many instances. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited Sabrina Buie’s case to defend capital punishment in a 1994 decision as Justice Harry Blackmun announced he opposed capital punishment in every circumstance. In 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party sent a mailer to voters to attack a Democratic candidate by using a picture of Henry McCollum and description of Sabrina Buie’s murder.
The spate of police murders of innocent people is not the only unjust cog in the justice system, even though the case of Michael Brown has captured national attention to this problem at the moment. A study that tracked death penalty cases for 23 years found that 68 percent of these cases were determined by the courts to have serious flaws and were justifiably reversible. This means the majority of people on death row today should be freed and the majority of cops, prosecutors, and judges who oversaw their cases should take their place in prison.