Local & State Voices

The death penalty, luck and innocence

In the aftermath of the freeing last week of two wrongfully convicted North Carolina inmates, one from death row, the views of two Robeson County district attorneys who played central roles in the case are sobering.

Joe Freeman Britt, who came to be known as the America’s “Deadliest D.A.” for having won more than 40 death penalty convictions over two decades, put those two freed men behind bars. In a Sunday New York Times article, the blustery 79-year-old remained unmoved, declaring still that “absolutely they are guilty.”

This amazing declaration comes despite the compelling evidence discovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that led a judge to exonerate Henry McCollum and Leon Brown and free them from 30 year of incarceration – three decades that McCollum spent on death-row. Most persuasive was new DNA evidence that links another inmate, Roscoe Artis, to the crime. Artis is a sex offender who lived a block away from where the child’s body was left. His DNA was found on the butt of a cigarette at the crime scene. He is serving a life sentence for a rape and murder that happened less than a month after the crime for which McCollum and Brown, two mentally disabled half-brothers, were convicted.

Joe Freeman Britt pooh-poohs that and other evidence. He told the Times: “I thought the D.A. just threw up his hands and capitulated, and the judge didn’t have any choice but to do what he did.”

For his part, current District Attorney Johnson Britt, whose grandfather reportedly was first cousin to the father of Joe Freeman Britt, sees things differently. “I was stunned,” he said this week about the DNA evidence found on the cigarette butt.

Johnson Britt also found it puzzling that the investigators and the prosecutors did not see a connection between the two murder-rape cases – given that the “same prosecutor handled both trials, 90 days apart.”

For the younger Britt, this case has been an eye-opener. He had previously said there were no innocent people on death row. This week, he told the Associated Press, “I stand corrected.”

He also said the case has heightened his concerns about the death penalty, noting its costs and lack of deterrent value. He thinks the N.C. legislature should re-examine whether to allow it.

N.C. lawmakers have been taking another look at the death penalty. Sadly, they’ve been trying to rev up the state killing system, not get rid of it. North Carolina has not held an execution since 2006 but last year lawmakers passed legislation to overcome impediments, including challenges to the state’s lethal injection protocol and questions about whether medical professionals can participate in executions.

For Henry McCollum, the impediments to restarting executions were a life-saver.

What also helped save him, and free his half brother, was something no other state has done but should: Establish an Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Legislation in 2006 set up the N.C. commission, which has a staff of six who investigate and eight members who decide if cases get judicial review. But its genesis began with heartfelt concerns about wrongful convictions of innocent people expressed by former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. in 2002. Lake set up a study commission, and told critics of the move that North Carolina has “the best criminal justice system in the country but it’s not perfect. And where we can, we need to improve and correct deficiencies.”

The Innocence Commission, operating on “a fairly small budget – about $350,000 a year (and) a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice,” according to executive director Kendra Montgomery-Blinn – has been doing just that. In 2010, it freed Greg Taylor, who spent 16 years in prison for the murder of a prostitute in Raleigh. In 2011, it freed Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson convicted in a robbery and shotgun slaying in Buncombe County. In 2012, it exonerated Willie Grimes, already on parole, of a 1987 rape and kidnapping in Hickory for which he served 24 years.

Despite legislative rumblings about budget cuts, the Commission has more than proved its value, reviewing over 1,600 claims and exonerating six people through its rigorous process.

Given rules that require never presented evidence, the Commission’s lifeline won’t reach some who are innocent. Additionally, officials say, evidence that might prove innocence has too often been destroyed or misplaced.

As a state agency, the Commission has been able to search for and compel evidence in ways others have not. Yet Montgomery-Blinn told the News & Observer last year that getting to evidence in “these cases is pure luck.”

N.C. lawmakers should remember Henry McCollum, who for 30 years awaited execution. If not for luck, the state could have killed an innocent man. It’s time to ditch the death penalty. Luck shouldn’t be good enough for the N.C. justice system.