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A death penalty symbol goes free

Perhaps you remember Henry Lee McCollum.

His is a name that comes up regularly when the death penalty is discussed, because the crime for which he was convicted – the brutal 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl – tests the thresholds many of us have regarding when someone should or shouldn’t be put to death.

McCollum, of Robeson County, was part of a death penalty debate between U.S. Supreme Court justices in 1994, and he was featured in a 2010 mailing from the N.C. Republican Party that attacked a Democratic state senator for being soft on the death penalty. The mailing featured a picture of McCollum and described his crimes in detail.

And now, it turns out those crimes are not his.

McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, were released Wednesday after DNA evidence tied the 1983 rape and murder to someone else. McCollum and Brown, both of whom are mentally disabled, had signed confessions after hours of questioning with no lawyers present. There was no physical evidence tying either to the rape or murder.

Can there be a clearer argument against the death penalty? It is this simple: Be it sloppy police work or prosecutorial misconduct or flawed eyewitness testimony, people are wrongly convicted of murder. Some are sentenced to death. And it is not rare.

Just last month, a Durham judge freed Darryl A. Howard from death row, calling the prosecution that led to his conviction the most “horrendous” he had seen in 34 years as a judge. Also last month, a Superior Court judge and a U.S. District Attorney in Washington, D.C. said that DNA evidence showed Kevin Martin, who had served 26 years for murder, was innocent.

Since 1989, 18 people who have served time on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the non-profit Innocence Project. Another 16 were exonerated after being convicted of capital crimes but not sentenced to death. Overall, DNA has overturned more than 300 wrongful convictions nationally. Dozens, like McCollum’s, were the result of false confessions.

Certainly, there are far more confessions that are true and murder convictions that are legitimate – some for truly abhorrent crimes. Such is what Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia argued in 1994 when the court declined to review a death row case in Texas.

Scalia, in arguing that the death penalty was not cruel or unusual punishment, cited the gruesome crime for which McCollum had been convicted a decade before. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” the justice wrote.

Now, the murderer is not a murderer, and those who were so sure he deserved to die must ask: How many more Henry Lee McCollums might there be?

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