Photos of Henry McCollum (L) and Leon Brown (R) by Jenny Warburg (Courtesy of NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.)
More than 3,200 people have been exonerated since 1989. Over half of them are Black.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Robeson County. The teenagers — half-brothers who were 19 and 15 years old, both Black and with cognitive disabilities — confessed under pressure from police, but there wasn’t physical evidence connecting them to the crime.
The North Carolina Innocence Commission started looking into the case in 2010. Thanks to a DNA analysis, they discovered that a cigarette butt left at the crime scene belonged to Roscoe Artis, a man who had been sentenced to death for sexually assaulting and murdering an 18-year-old woman in the same county a month after McCollum and Brown confessed to killing Buie.
Artis, it turns out, had been a suspect in the Buie case back in 1984. The police had asked the State Bureau of Investigations to compare fingerprints found on beer cans left at the crime scene to Artis’s, a request they had hid from McCollum and Brown’s lawyers. It wasn’t law enforcement’s only lie: They also kept secret that a witness who testified at trial that McCollum and Brown admitted to the crime — the same witness who had previously denied knowing anything about the case. That witness had even passed a lie detector test confirming his denial.
McCollum and Brown spent more than three decades in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They were exonerated in 2014, pardoned by the governor the next year and received $750,000 each in compensation from the state. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince the prosecutor who put them on death row. That attorney told The New York Times, “No question about it, absolutely they are guilty.”
McCollum and Brown’s experience is recounted in a report published last week by the National Registry of Exonerations about the role race plays in the conviction of innocent people. The two men are among the 75 people who spent three decades or more on death row before they were exonerated. More than two-thirds of them were Black.
Black people convicted of murder are 80% more likely to be innocent than people of other races convicted of the same crime, researchers found.
“Race is central to every aspect of criminal justice in the United States. The conviction of innocent defendants is no exception,” it reads. “Thousands of exonerations across dozens of years demonstrate that Black people are far more likely than white people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit.”
Just how much more likely is quantified: The analysis states that innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than whites to be falsely convicted of serious crimes.
According to a database maintained by the National Registry of Exonerations, which co-wrote the report, 72 people in North Carolina have been exonerated since 1989; 55 are Black.
The report looks closely at three types of crimes that result in the largest number of exonerations: murder, sexual assault and drug crimes.
The authors argue that in murder and sexual assault cases preliminary investigative issues increase the number of innocent Black suspects.
“For murder, the high homicide rate in the Black community,” they write. “For rape, the difficulty of cross-racial eyewitness identification. For both crimes, misconduct, discrimination and racism amplify these initial racial discrepancies.”
It gets bleaker for drug crimes. Racial profiling by law enforcement dramatically increases the number of convictions of innocent profiling. Others were straight-up framed by police, many of them in “large-scale police scandals.” Most who were locked up from these scandals are Black.
“Black and white Americans use illegal drugs at similar rates, but Black people are 19 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes they didn’t commit than white people,” the authors write.
More than two-thirds of people exonerated of drug crimes are Black; just 16% are white.
“Because of racial profiling, Black people are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted in routine drug possession cases; as a result, they are also more likely to be convicted by factual mistakes,” the researchers write. “Many false drug convictions, however, are not mistakes. Black people are also the main targets in a shocking series of scandals in which police officers systematically framed innocent defendants for drug crimes that never occurred.”
While there’s no sign of a decline in racial disparities among wrongful convictions involving drug crimes, there have been huge changes in wrongful rape convictions. Many innocent people misidentified by survivors of sexual assault in the 1980s have been exonerated by DNA tests over the past three decades. Most of those exonerees were Black men accused of raping white women.
“There have been no DNA exonerations of misidentified rape defendants who were convicted since 2008 because DNA testing now routinely corrects misidentifications before conviction,” the report states. “This is an extraordinary technological success that has prevented hundreds of false convictions, perhaps more—mostly of Black men.”
For more information on exonerations and to look up specific cases, visit The National Registry of Exonerations website.
Here are some figures pulled from the report and the registry’s database:
3,249 – Number of exonerations nationwide since 1989
1,712 – Number of Black people exonerated since 1989
14% – Approximate percentage of the U.S. population that is Black
53% – Percentage of exonerations where the innocent person is Black
27,200 – Cumulative number of years exonerees lost while sitting in prison for crimes they didn’t commit
11.6 – Average number of years it takes for someone wrongfully convicted of a crime to be exonerated
3 – Average number of years that Black murder exonerees spend in prison before going home more than white murder exonerees
181 – Number of exonerees who spent 25 years or longer in prison before going home; 68% are Black
10 – Number of exonerees who spent 40 years or longer in prison before getting released; 8 are Black
259 – Number of exonerees who were convicted of trumped-up drug charges, 87% of whom are Black
13% – Percentage of murders committed by Black people where the victim is white
26% – Percentage of innocent Black exonerees who were convicted of killing white people
72 – Number of people exonerated of crimes in North Carolina since 1989, 55 of whom are Black
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