Saturday, June 6, 2015

Two Down; Thousands To Go

It was September last year when a judge in North Carolina declared Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown innocent of the horrific rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie.  I wrote about it at the time, quoting Scalia explaining why Lee McCollum ought to be killed (without actually hearing his appeal).  He wrote that an 

11-year-old girl [was] raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.

And I noted that he barely touched the surface.  I quoted the North Carolina Supreme Court.
An autopsy was performed upon the body of Sabrina Buie. Linear abrasions on her back and buttocks revealed a pattern indicating that the body had been dragged over a rough surface. There was a tear or laceration deep within the victim's vagina and a tear or laceration in her anal canal. Petechial hemorrhaging, characterized as the bursting of small blood vessels caused by pressure, was observed in the victim's eyes. Similar hemorrhaging caused by a pressure mechanism was also observed in the heart and lungs. The brain appeared slightly swollen due to a lack of oxygen.
A stick and pair of panties were wedged in the victim's throat, completely obstructing the airway. Dr. Deborah Radisch, Chief Assistant Medical Examiner for the State of North Carolina, testified that the victim died of asphyxiation.
But mostly I wrote about how, after 30 years in prison/on death row, McCollum and Brown were exonerated, declared innocent by a judge.  

I wrote about how Johnson Britt, the current prosecutor in Robeson County, joined defense counsel in urging the judge to declare the half brothers innocent. About how DNA, finally tested,* pointed to a neighbor - who'd committed a similar crime.

And I wrote about how Joe Freeman Britt,** the now-retired prosecutor who got the two innocent men convicted and sentenced to die, insists that they're guilty. Because who you gonna believe, fucking science which happens to exonerate them and point to a nearby guy who's doing life for a similar rape-murder a month after Sabrina Buie's?  Or the coerced, inconsistent, promptly recanted confessions of a pair of teen-aged half brothers with mental disabilities?

But mostly I wrote about 30 years.  And about how this thing called "criminal justice" which freed the now-middle-aged men bears no real relationship to justice.  Whatever justice might be.

It's been about nine months now.  And of course it's been a struggle.  Had they been freed by the North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission, they'd have been eligible to collect $750,000 each. Small compensation for 30 years but certainly helpful for getting started again in the outside world. But no, they were declared innocent by a judge.  So fuck 'em.  Hey, we gave each of them $45 on the way out the door.  Isn't that enough?

Craig Jarvis in the Raleigh News and Observer.
Since being freed from prison last year, the men have been living with their sister in Fayetteville, where she has been struggling to pay rent and utilities on her home. The death penalty center established a fund to help them survive.
Because they had been freed by a judge, and not on a declaration of innocence by the Innocence Inquiry Commission, McCollum and Brown could not collect compensation. To do so, they needed a pardon from the governor.
Which he's now done.  After nine months.  Per the press release.
Governor Pat McCrory signed official pardons of innocence for Henry McCollum and Leon Brown today. The governor announced his decision to pardon the brothers yesterday after a thorough and comprehensive review by the Office of Executive Clemency, the governor's legal team and the Clemency Committee.
Because you want to be damned sure before tapping into the treasury.  And really, after 30 years, what's another nine months?  (And counting, since there are still some hoops to jump through before getting the checks come in.)

I don't mean to sound churlish, and good for the Governor to finally do the right thing.  And certainly good for Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown (who didn't attend the press conference at which McCrory expressed his deepest sympathy to the family of Sabrina Buie - but offered no sympathy at all to the men who lost 30 years of their lives).  But you know, it all raises some questions.

I quoted Scalia above and in that earlier blog post.  His point was that what Henry Lee McCollum did was so horrific that being executed is just a walk in the park by comparison.  Of course he should die. 

Now, I don't imagine that Scalia is so cold-blooded that he favors killing innocent people even in revenge for the most appalling crimes.  But then, McCollum and Brown weren't executed.  So it's all good.

And hell, they'll even get the big bucks now.
But just how many eggs do you break to make that omelet?  How close to a killing do you have to come before it's a problem?  

It's not just the men and women on the row.  They're the ones who get attention, who have lawyers (and yes, I've been one of them) working for decades on their cases with little or no remuneration. But there are the LWOP folks, too.  And the ones doing a term of years.

Our system, any system, is going to make mistakes.  We're going to kill some number of factually innocent people.  We're going to lock up for a very long time some number of factually innocent people.  We're going to lock up for lesser periods some number of factually innocent people.  We're going to destroy lives that shouldn't be destroyed.

All that's a given.  At some level, it's unavoidable.  We won't, we can't catch all the mistakes.  And we need some system.

But death mistakes are irreversible.  And possible mistakes that we aren't eager to review are, frankly, inexcusable.

Yet our system says no.  Our system says finality.  Our system says we review for procedure not accuracy.  Our system says that it's better to throw away the key, hell, throw away the life, than to find out.  

Because who really gives a shit.  Because if they didn't do that, they probably did something.  And because

Well, because.
"Today we put the past behind us with not just a clear conscience, but a clear name, committed to living a good life and doing God's work,” half-brothers Leon Brown and Henry McCollum said in a statement released by their lawyer, Patrick Megaro.
Brown and McCollum have awaited the pardon, which allows them to collect compensation for their wrongful imprisonment, since pardon applications were received by McCrory on Sept. 15.
“We pray that justice will again prevail and the real murderer is punished justly for his crimes, and we also pray for the victim's family that they find justice and peace,” the statement said.
30 years.  And they take the high road.

Like I said, good for them.  But there are all those others.

And nobody, really, gives enough of a damn to find out.
*I keep asking, often in all caps to indicate shouting, WHY DON'T THEY JUST TEST THE FUCKING DNA?  And of course, the answer is always, ultimately they same - they don't really want to know. 
**Not related to Johnson according to most reports, a "distant relative" per Alan Blinder in the Times.

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