North Carolina Brothers’ Rape-Murder Convictions Overturned on DNA Evidence

DNA testing has cleared two mentally disabled North Carolina men for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl that occurred over thirty years ago, as reported by The New York Times.

Henry Lee McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, were 19 and 15 when the crime occurred. Both confessed but repudiated their confessions shortly afterwards. They said the confessions had been coerced.

McCollum was subjected to five hours of questioning without an attorney. He said police officers yelled and threatened him. He said he “made up a story and gave it to them so they would just let me go home.” Brown said he was told he could be executed if he did not cooperate.

Despite the lack of physical evidence tying the brothers to the crime, both men were convicted and sentenced to death. Brown’s sentence was later reduced to life after the U.S. Supreme Court held that minors could not receive the death penalty.

The case originally drew national attention because the court sentenced two mentally disabled men to death. The U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request to review the case in 1994, although one justice dissented on the basis that Brown had the mental age of a nine-year-old.

District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, reputed to be the country’s “deadliest D.A.,” prosecuted the brothers. Britt, now retired, recently told reporters he still believed McCollum and Brown were guilty despite the new DNA evidence.

The brothers challenged their convictions when DNA testing of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene produced a match with Roscoe Artis, a convicted murderer and rapist. Artis had confessed to a similar murder of a young girl just weeks after the murder for which the brothers were convicted. Officials never investigated whether Artis had committed that murder, too, despite the strikingly similar circumstances.