Innocent on death row

Flaws of capital punishment underscored by recently exonerated death-row inmate

Earlier this month two North Carolina men who had served 30 years in prison, one on death row, were exonerated when it was shown they were innocent victims of a broken justice system.

In an ironic twist, it turns out that 20 years ago Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited the death-row inmate, Henry Lee McCollum, as someone eminently deserving of being executed for his brutal crime—a crime we now know he didn’t commit.

McCollum was 19 when he and his half-brother, Leon Brown, who was just 15, were arrested for the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, whose body was found in a Robeson County soybean field. The young men, both of whom were intellectually disabled, were convicted and sentenced to death (Brown’s sentence later was commuted to life in prison).

There was no physical evidence tying them to the crime. Their convictions were based solely on police-written confessions they signed under duress after five hours of intense interrogation with no lawyer or parent present. McCollum later said he “just wanted to go home.”

In fact, police had a legitimate suspect, Roscoe Artis, a man with a long history of assaults who lived just 100 yards from where Buie’s body was found. Police sought to test a fingerprint found at the crime scene against Artis’ prints, but the test never was done, and the defense wasn’t notified of the request.

Finally, in 2013, DNA from a cigarette butt found at the scene was tested. It matched Artis’. He meanwhile was serving a life sentence for a crime similar to the killing of Sabrina Buie.

Justice Scalia entered the picture in 1994. In response to Justice Harry Blackmun’s announcement that he no longer would support the death penalty, Scalia cited the Buie murder. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” he said.

Scalia clearly was prepared to order McCollum’s execution. How many other innocents are on death row?