by Kimberly J. Cook, Ph.D., NC Newsline
In March, an appeals court affirmed the historic $75 million in damages that a jury granted to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, brothers who were sentenced to death in Robeson County in 1983 and spent 30 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit, and who’s case was plagued by systemic racism. Now, the state must pay for its egregious, negligent, and racist treatment of these brothers, who were just children when they were railroaded by law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
Seventy-five million dollars might sound like a lot of money but try to fathom what they lost. Think about the past thirty years of your life. Remember the sweet moments, the people you shared that with; the new people that joined your family through births, adoptions, marriages, and chosen family. Consider your children’s achievements, the school plays, the drop-off line, the rare snow days. Remember the people who left your family or your social circles through deaths, divorces, conflicts, and other ways in which we fall apart sometimes. Think about the bills you paid, the nest egg you built, car loans, mortgages, moving towards financial security. Think about the jobs you were excited to start, the jobs you wished to leave and other major achievements. Now, imagine all of that is erased. It never happened because your life was stolen from you by a wrongful conviction.
McCollum and Brown, however, are far from the only victims of this terrible injustice.
The family of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, already grieving her murder, was further traumatized by the realization that the legal process they relied on to serve them justice failed and, instead sent two innocent men to prison. Another layer of this betrayal, and cost, is that the actual perpetrator may have had opportunity to harm others, and those subsequent victims are paying a price they should never have endured if North Carolina had not caused this added harm.
The families of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were also devastated and grieving and feared the possibility of execution in North Carolina’s Central Prison. They watched helplessly as Leon, just 15 at the time of the crime, and Henry, 19, were both sentenced to death. Leon was later resentenced to life without parole, but Henry remained in danger of execution for three decades. These families suffered a cost that cannot be entirely calculated.
Another group of people harmed by wrongful convictions are jurors, attorneys, and legal system officials who work on these cases. They experience a collateral trauma that rarely receives attention from the public. The stress associated with capital trials is legendary for system officials, the cases are enormously exhausting and emotionally devastating; when the defendant is innocent the damage to system officials is compounded and expanded. They experience a sense of institutional betrayal because the system is not supposed to work like this.
In truth, everyone pays a heavy price for wrongful capital convictions, twelve of which have now been documented in North Carolina. Taxpayers must bear the burden of the financial settlements paid out to the wrongfully convicted. And possibly even more important, all of us bear the moral stain of living in a state that continues to endorse the death penalty. While no executions have been carried out since 2006, the death penalty remains on the books and prosecutors continue to seek and win new death sentences.
Our state has the fifth largest death row in the nation. We would be better served by restorative justice strategies that provide crime victims with answers to their questions and create active accountability to the people who hurt them. Compensating the wrongly convicted is a step towards repairing the harms. However, if we are to ensure that the agony McCollum and Brown suffered never happens again, we mush abolish the death penalty, and commute all current death sentences in North Carolina.
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