We would like to think that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown are unique. Surely, it is unusual for blameless men to be sentenced to death and imprisoned for 30 years, despite shockingly weak evidence.
Unfortunately, McCollum and Brown seem to be joining a crowd.
Last week, an Alabama man was exonerated after 30 years on death row. Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to death for two robbery-murders, even though he was working in a locked warehouse at the time of the crimes and passed a lie detector test saying he had nothing to do with the murders.
The only evidence was a ballistics test showing that the bullets used in the crimes matched a gun found in Hinton’s mother’s house. That test was discredited years ago, yet prosecutors continued to fight Hinton’s release. He was finally granted a new trial, and prosecutors admitted they had no credible evidence tying him to the crime.
And in Louisiana last week, Glenn Ford, an innocent man who spent 30 years on Louisiana’s death row, was denied compensation by the state. This denial came despite a heartfelt apology penned by the prosecutor who won the death sentence. Ford was exonerated in March 2014 after the discovery of statements from a confidential informant that cleared Ford and implicated another man, which were not disclosed at trial.
“Glenn Ford deserves every penny owed to him under the compensation statute,” former prosecutor A.M. Stroud III wrote. “This case is another example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty. I now realize, all too painfully, that as a young 33-year-old prosecutor, I was not capable of making a decision that could have led to the killing of another human being.”
At the time of Ford’s trial, his defense attorneys had never tried a case before a jury. Both he and Hinton are black men who were convicted by all-white juries.
Seven months after their release from prison, McCollum and Brown are still waiting for Gov. Pat McCrory to grant them a pardon of innocence and the $750,000 in state compensation that they are due. After three decades in prison, they were released with nothing and have been living on the edge of homelessness.
In North Carolina and across the country, we have a capital punishment system that makes grave errors, sentences innocent people to death, and takes decades to sort out its mistakes. No amount of money can fix the harm this causes. But the least we can do is quickly give exonerees the modest compensation to which they are entitled.