31-year wait for justice is enough

The Observer editorial board

Henry McCollum, left, and Leon Brown were released in September after 31 years.
Henry McCollum, left, and Leon Brown were released in September after 31 years. NEWS & OBSERVER

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown spent 31 years in prison for a rape and murder they did not commit. They were finally freed – from death row in McCollum’s case – in September.

Yet eight months later they still wait for a pardon from Gov. Pat McCrory. Until they get it, they cannot recover a penny from the state for their false imprisonment.

The law makes them eligible for up to $750,000 for having their entire adult lives wrongly taken from them. So far all they’ve received was $45 each when they left prison.

Investigators for the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, as part of a five-year probe, found DNA evidence linking the crime to another inmate, Roscoe Artis. He is serving time for a similar killing in the same small town one month after McCollum and Brown were arrested.

The Robeson County district attorney, Johnson Britt, then agreed the brothers should be exonerated. On September 2, Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser declared them innocent. They were freed the next day.

None of that is good enough for McCrory, who has launched his own investigation. The governor’s office did not respond to emails from the Observer editorial board last week asking about the status of the pardon. But McCrory’s general counsel, Bob Stephens, sent a statement to Sharon McCloskey, a writer for N.C. Policy Watch.

“This is a thorough and detail-intensive process, and it takes time to complete,” Stephens wrote. “We review evidence, transcripts, and other reports connected to the case. Interviews of relevant parties are also conducted.”

McCollum and Brown need a pardon to receive compensation because they were exonerated by a judge. A different path to exoneration – the innocence commission followed by a three-judge panel – does not require a pardon. A bill to treat exonerated inmates the same passed the House unanimously last month and is now in the Senate.

McCollum and Brown are both mentally disabled, penniless and adjusting to society after 31 years under the state’s control. That their lives were wrongly taken from them by an overzealous prosecutor and others is horrific. Now, McCrory’s delay has left them struggling to pay bills and with records still tainted by the lack of a pardon.

As part of McCrory’s investigation, the SBI and the Robeson County DA’s office are exploring whether the two had any culpability in the original crime. The investigation that freed them, though, was uncommonly thorough, and the judge found not only that there was not enough evidence to retry them, but that they were actually innocent.

McCrory’s extensive probe is unnecessary, and shouldn’t take more than eight months, in any case. He needs to wrap it up and let McCollum and Brown get on with the lives the state unconscionably took from them.