Henry McCollum & Leon Brown

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Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were taken from their home in rural Robeson County, coerced into confessing to a brutal murder they didn’t commit, and sentenced to death. The brothers spent 31 years in prison before DNA testing finally proved them innocent. By the time of their release in 2014, Henry was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner.

Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

[Read more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina]

Henry McCollum lived in New Jersey but had come to rural North Carolina to spend time with his mother and his brother, Leon Brown. It was the autumn of 1983. Henry was 19, and Leon was just 15. Henry had been in Robeson County for a few weeks when the body of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was discovered in a soybean field just a short distance away from his mother’s home. The little girl been raped, and suffocated. Police in the tiny town of Red Springs began interviewing local residents, searching for suspects.

Henry McCollum school photo
1976 school photo of Henry McCollum.

One police officer came across a high school student who repeated a rumor she’d heard at school: Henry McCollum, a teen from out of town, seemed suspicious and might have been involved in the crime. Henry had intellectual disabilities, which may have been why other teens felt he behaved strangely. When officers showed up at his mother’s house, Henry went to the police station voluntarily. It was evening, and a group of law enforcement officers kept him in an interrogation room until late in the night, demanding that Henry tell them about the crime, promising him that if he gave them the facts about the crime, he would be allowed to go home. After four and a half hours of questioning, Henry broke. He told the officers a story filled with details they’d given him, about a rape and murder he had nothing to do with. The officers wrote up a grisly confession and Henry, who could barely comprehend the written document, signed it. And then he asked, “Can I go home now?” He had no idea that he wouldn’t go home again for more than three decades.

As Henry invented the details of the rape, he added other characters to the scene to share responsibility for the awful crime. He said that his brother Leon had been with him, along with two friends. By coincidence, Leon and his mother were already at the police station; they’d come to wait for Henry. Police pulled Leon into another interrogation room, and extracted a confession from him too. Leon, who was more profoundly disabled than Henry, could not even read the document he signed just a half hour after Henry’s confession. It conflicted in significant ways with Henry’s account, and both confessions pointed to two other boys who police later determined could not possibly have been present. Yet, those two confessions — coerced, conflicting, and patently false — became the evidence that prosecutors would use to send two innocent, poor, black, disabled teenagers to death row.

Henry and Leon quickly retracted their confessions, but it was too late. In 1984, a jury sentenced both of them to death. In 1991, they won a new trial, and Leon was resentenced to life in prison. However, Henry was again sentenced to death. His confession was, once again, the key piece of evidence. During his years on death row, Henry’s case became notorious. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to support capital punishment. During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers as an example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed. Henry continued to proclaim his innocence to anyone who would listen.

Finally, Leon wrote to the N.C. Innocence Commission, a state agency that agreed to investigate the case. What they uncovered was shocking. Investigators knew at the time that fingerprints found at the scene didn’t match Henry or Leon, but they never compared the fingerprints to other possible suspects. And just a few weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing, another young woman was raped and murdered in Red Springs. Joann Brockman, 18, had also been raped, asphyxiated, and left in a field. The culprit was a man named Roscoe Artis, who had a long record of serious assaults against women. Artis lived next to the field where Sabrina’s body was found, yet he had never been investigated as a suspect in her death. The Innocence Commission staff unearthed items that had been left by Sabrina’s body — clothing, beer cans, cigarette butts — and conducted modern DNA testing. They found no DNA belonging to Henry and Leon, but on one cigarette butt, they found a perfect match with Roscoe Artis.

Based on the Commission’s overwhelming evidence of innocence, the brothers were released from prison in 2014. In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted the brothers a full pardon of innocence. Also that year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.

Today, Henry is rebuilding his life with the help of family. Leon, whose severe disabilities were compounded by the trauma of prison, is living in an institution. Both are pursuing a civil lawsuit against the agencies that wrongly imprisoned them. Roscoe Artis remains in prison, serving a life sentence for Brockman’s murder. He has not been prosecuted for Sabrina’s murder.

Learn more:

Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s in-depth story of Henry and Leon’s dramatic exoneration, read their report Saved From the Executioner

Watch this fascinating one-hour documentary about the case from Death Row Stories (Episode 8)

Read the Marshall Project’s story about what happened to the brothers after their exoneration, The Price of Innocence

Read more stories of innocent people sent to NC death row

Darryl Hunt

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Because of a single juror, Darryl Hunt was spared the death penalty for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was not spared, however, from spending 19 years in prison — ten of those after DNA evidence showed that he was not the culprit.

NC Exoneree Darryl Hunt
Darryl Hunt doing one of many media interviews in his work to end the death penalty.

[Read more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina]

In August 1984, Darryl Hunt was an impoverished teenager in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when police scooped him up and put him into a lineup for a crime he did not commit. A 25-year-old newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, had been raped and stabbed to death while on her way to work. The killing of a young white woman sparked community outrage, and police were eager to make an arrest. A witness came forward to say he’d seen Ms. Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime. Police created a lineup, and the witness picked Darryl. We now know that police lineups often lead to mistaken identifications and wrongful convictions. In Darryl’s case, that mistaken identification was the beginning of a saga that would lead to two decades in prison and then two decades of activism, fighting the system that had wrongly imprisoned him and so many others.

At his 1985 trial, the main evidence tying Darryl to the crime was the mistaken testimony of people who said they had seen him on the morning of the murder with Sykes or at a hotel disposing of bloody towels. Their identification of Darryl was shaky at best. Another witness, Darryl’s girlfriend, claimed he had confessed to her. She was facing her own prosecution on larceny charges and likely hoped that her testimony in Darryl’s case would result in lighter punishment. Later, she recanted her testimony against Darryl. Darryl testified that he did not know Deborah Sykes and had no involvement with the crime. Darryl was sentenced to life in prison, because of that single juror who refused to make it a unanimous vote for death.

In 1989, Darryl’s conviction was overturned because prosecutors had relied on the girlfriend’s since-recanted statements. Prosecutors offered Darryl a deal. He could be freed by pleading guilty and accepting a sentence of the five years he had already served. He refused to admit to a crime he did not commit. Darryl was retried for murder, and again sentenced to life in prison.

In 1994, scientific advances allowed for DNA testing, which revealed that the DNA of the rapist did not match Darryl’s. In a hearing about the newly discovered DNA, the state changed its story, now insisting that there was more than one assailant and that Darryl killed the victim while another man raped her. The judge ruled in the prosecution’s favor, saying the DNA evidence did not prove his innocence. Darryl remained in prison for another decade.

In 2004, after immense public pressure, the state finally ran the crime scene DNA through a database of people convicted of felonies and found a perfect match — a man who had committed a similar rape just months after Deborah Sykes’ murder. Willard Brown confessed, and Darryl was finally freed. That same year, Darryl received a rare pardon of innocence from the governor.

Darryl spent 19 years in prison after a conviction based on mistaken identification and recanted testimony.

Darryl spent 15 years in prison after his conviction was overturned and he refused a plea deal that would have allowed him to go home.

Darryl spent 10 years in prison after DNA evidence proved he had not assaulted Ms. Sykes.

Between his date of conviction and date of exoneration, 29 people were executed in North Carolina.

Darryl on the day of his exoneration in 2004. Photo by Ted Richardson

Darryl spent the rest of his life advocating to end capital punishment and ensure that no more innocent people get the death penalty in North Carolina. “If I had gotten a death sentence,” he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind I would have been executed.” He founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for the wrongfully convicted supporting people recently released from prison.

In a loss to us all, Darryl died in 2016. He was 51.

Learn more:

Watch the fascinating documentary about Darryl’s 19-year fight for freedom, The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Read a moving piece by Mark Rabil, the lawyer who represented Darryl for 20 years, My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt

Read this beautiful story about the end of Darryl’s life, written by his longtime friend, The Last Days of Darryl Hunt

Read an investigative series about Darryl’s case in the Winston-Salem Journal

See more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina

Finding redemption & beauty on North Carolina’s death row

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Last week, I went to visit a man who has lived on North Carolina death row for 19 years. We talked about books and writing and art. He told me about the two plants he dug up from the prison yard and now keeps in his cell.

Each morning, he moves them into a patch of light near the window. He plays classical music, because he read that it helps plants grow. As he tends to them, he thinks of his grandmother. He used to tell her she was crazy to talk to her plants. Now, he’s past 50, about the age his grandmother was in his memory, talking to his own plants on death row.

He reminded me that our work to end the death penalty isn’t just theoretical. It’s about believing in the possibility of every human life. Bryan Stevenson is right: People are so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

We’ve now gone 13 years without an execution in North Carolina, but the death penalty is still a threat. People are still being tried capitally, and after two years without any new death sentences, we had three this year in North Carolina. Our state continues to have one of the nation’s largest death rows – 143 men and women living under death sentences.

But this year was also full of bright spots that give us hope. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to take on the legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, and lawyers for six death row prisoners made historic arguments exposing the ways that race infects the death penalty. Polling, both in North Carolina and nationally, showed that a clear majority of people now prefer alternatives to capital punishment over executions. Another innocent person, once sentenced to death, was exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina. And Henry McCollum, who was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner when he was exonerated in 2014, joined our Coalition and began attending meetings.

Exonerated North Carolina death row prisoner Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

As we end 2019, let’s celebrate our victories and renew our commitment. Let’s also remember who we’re fighting for: People who have caused great pain but still have something to give. People who sometimes find redemption even in the darkest places.

When you think of death row, think of the man I saw last week. Sitting on the other side of thick glass and bars, he told me a story.

Earlier this year, he was outside for rec time when a ladybug landed on his arm. He spent the next hour watching it crawl on his shirt, marveling at a tiny spot of beauty in a world of razor wire and armed guards. When it was time to go inside, another prisoner asked if he would take it inside and make it a pet. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to take anything into prison.” He let it fly away.

He is keenly aware of his mistakes and how much he’s taken from others. He felt he deserved worse when the judge pronounced his death sentence.

In the years since, the state has done its best to take everything from him. But he is still here. Day by day, he is figuring out how to live on death row – and how to nurture what he can.

Please help nurture justice and hope in 2020 by making a year-end contribution to the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Your donation will ensure that North Carolina never again executes a human being. Donate here.

—Kristin Collins, Dec. 17, 2019



NC case shines rare light on sexism in death penalty jury selection

CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger, expert on death penalty jury selection
CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger

CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger has studied the ways that stereotypes affect who sits on death penalty juries in North Carolina criminal cases. In this guest post, she writes about a new case of jury bias making its way through the state’s courts.

By Elizabeth Hambourger

Until the middle of the 20th century, the law barred women from jury service. The myth was that women are weak and overly emotional, not rational enough to serve on juries.

A brief filed in late September in a North Carolina death penalty case shines a rare light on the persistence of sexist stereotypes in the legal system. Bryan Bell was sentenced to death in Sampson County in 2001. In 2010, he filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act, citing statistics that revealed a sweeping pattern of race discrimination in capital jury selection. The prosecutor in Bell’s case, Greg Butler, excluded several black citizens from Bell’s jury. Among them was an African American woman named Viola Morrow.

In response to the statistical pattern revealed by the RJA, Butler submitted a remarkable affidavit. To defend himself from the charges of race discrimination, Butler explained that he struck Morrow from the jury, not because she was black but because she was a woman. Butler said he rejected Morrow because he “was looking for a male juror and potential foreperson.” In another capital trial, Butler confessed that he excluded two women because he was “looking for strong male jurors.”

It‘s unconstitutional for a lawyer to use either race or gender as a factor in jury selection. In 1994, in J.E.B. v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected the very type of sexist reasoning Butler expressed in his affidavits: that women are not “strong” enough for jury service, that women are not capable of handling the leadership role of foreperson.  The Court said it would not tolerate jury strikes based on these “invidious, archaic, and overbroad” stereotypes.

In J.E.B., the justices also recognized that, if they condoned jury discrimination on the basis of gender, lawyers might use it as a way to disguise race discrimination in jury selection.  It certainly seems possible that’s exactly what Butler was trying to do when he crafted his affidavit. But whether based on race or gender, his actions were not only unacceptable but illegal.

The only way to stop such blatant discrimination is for courts to overturn convictions when it happens. Unfortunately, North Carolina appellate courts have a shameful record when it comes to policing jury discrimination: they have never overturned a single conviction on grounds that a juror was discriminated against on the basis of race or gender. But Bell’s is the unusual case in which a prosecutor openly admitted discriminating. If Butler’s affidavit doesn’t prove discrimination, what does? Nevertheless, the first court to consider the affidavit simply ignored it and upheld Bell’s conviction.

Now our state Supreme Court has an opportunity to make clear that women belong on North Carolina juries and that our state will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of misogynistic myths. Significantly, three of the seven Supreme Court justices hearing the case will be women, the most women ever to serve on our Court at once. One might well wonder whether prosecutor Greg Butler thinks these accomplished women are “strong” enough to be Supreme Court justices.  Of course, this time, they’ll be the ones judging him.

Two death-sentenced men in NC get another chance to prove innocence

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We’re waiting on the N.C. Supreme Court to rule in the Racial Justice Act cases that were argued in August. In the meantime, the court is taking on other injustices on North Carolina’s death row.

Last week, the state Supreme Court agreed with two separate death row prisoners that questionable evidence was used at their trials. Both will get new chances to present evidence that could exonerate them.

The court ruled that Michael Patrick Ryan should get a new trial, nine years after he was sent to death row by Gaston County prosecutors who falsified DNA evidence and intimidated alibi witnesses. And in Michael Sherrill’s case, the court granted a hearing where he can present evidence that he, too, deserves a new trial. Sherrill was sentenced to death in large part because of baseless accusations that he’d committed a triple murder, in addition to the murder for which he was on trial. Both men claim their innocence.

These cases highlight the fact that many of North Carolina’s more than 140 death sentences are based on weak and even false evidence. CDPL’s report Unequal Justice highlighted that most death row prisoners were tried before 2001, during a decade when North Carolina sentenced record numbers of people to death and a series of important reforms were not yet in place. But Sherrill was tried in 2009 and Ryan in 2010, showing that modern reforms have still not ensured fair trials for people facing execution.

In Ryan’s case, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling, which found that prosecutors misled the jury with a false DNA test. The prosecution’s expert told the jury that that Ryan’s DNA could not be excluded from a DNA mixture found on items stolen from the murder victim. The prosecution presented a color-coded chart which appeared to show Ryan was a contributor to the DNA mixture. The problem is, the State’s expert did not follow accepted standards in analyzing the DNA evidence. DNA experts using appropriate protocols determined that Ryan was not a contributor and that the State’s evidence was false.

A prosecution investigator also intimidated three alibi witnesses who could have confirmed Ryan’s claim that, at the time of the murder, he and his 13-year-old daughter were stranded on the side of the road with his broken down truck. The investigator improperly interviewed Ryan’s daughter without a parent present and threatened other witnesses with arrest.

Ryan’s is one of several Gaston County murder cases that have been discredited. Mark Carver won a new trial earlier this year after being sentenced to life in prison, and Mike Mead was acquitted in a case where prosecutors sought the death penalty against him.

In the second case, Michael Sherrill was convicted and sentenced to death in 2009 for a single murder that occurred 25 years earlier. However, at his trial, prosecutors presented extensive testimony about a triple murder, which they said Sherrill had also committed. The court allowed evidence about the triple murder because it helped to prove Sherrill’s guilt and eligibility for the death penalty in the single murder.

However, Sherrill’s attorneys never investigated compelling evidence that someone else committed the triple murder, in part because one of them had previously represented the other suspect and had a conflict of interest. The State eventually dropped all charges against Sherrill in the triple murder, but that was more than five years after the accusations had helped send him to death row.

Sherrill will now get to argue for a new trial that isn’t polluted by unfounded allegations about a triple murder. Sherrill says he is innocent of both the triple murder and the murder that sent him to death row.

Judging by these two decisions, it appears that this N.C. Supreme Court wants to see the whole truth come out in death penalty cases.

A history-making day in the North Carolina Supreme Court

The Racial Justice Act legal team

At the end of August, our movement made history. A group of talented attorneys from across the state and the nation argued before the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue were the cases of six men and women on death row who have uncovered compelling proof that their sentences were poisoned by racial discrimination. All six filed claims under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA). Black citizens were illegally excluded from their juries. At least two defendants were tried amid public threats of lynching, and in one case those threats came from members of the jury pool. One defendant was referred to by a racial slur in open court … by the prosecutor. The evidence of racism is crystal clear.


Sylvia Golphin, mother of Tilmon Golphin

At Tilmon Golphin’s trial, two white members of the jury pool were overheard saying he “never should have made it out of the woods” where he fled while police were trying to arrest him for murder. Those two people were never removed from the jury pool.


Shirley Burns, left, and Tawana Choate, the mothers of Marcus Robinson and Quintel Augustine

At Quintel Augustine’s trial, the prosecutor wrote notes such as “blk wino” about the races of prospective jurors and then struck all the black jurors, leaving a black defendant to be sentenced to death by an all-white jury. At Marcus Robinson’s trial, prosecutors singled out black prospective jurors with demeaning questions, like whether they failed in school or knew how to read. No white jurors were asked such questions.


Attorney Jay Ferguson, right, with Brian Stull of the ACLU

During the arguments, attorneys for the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office did not dispute the evidence of discrimination. In fact, they admitted that racism in capital trials is serious and must be dealt with. But they asked the Supreme Court to deny the cases and leave the defendants to litigate their discrimination claims in the lower courts, which have failed for decades to root out racial discrimination in the death penalty. The RJA attorneys made a passionate argument that the state’s highest court must take on this critical issue. If it doesn’t, it will send the message that our state is willing to execute people even after overwhelming evidence of racism in their trials has come to light. The arguments concluded with Jay Ferguson’s powerful words to the justices: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”


RJA attorney Henderson Hill

For decades, North Carolina’s high courts have refused to acknowledge discrimination in jury selection, even though it has been blatant and endemic. “Weighing on this court’s shoulders is hundreds of years of history of discrimination against African American citizens … With all that history, how does this court respond?” Henderson Hill asked.


James E. Ferguson, II

“When we stand back and we take a long view of history, we’ve got to go all the way back to the days of slavery, ” civil rights leader James Ferguson, II said. “During those days, capital punishment was largely imposed upon slaves and more often than not for crimes against white people. This is the original context in which we come today.”

Ferguson said the RJA fits into our state’s history of civil rights advances followed by fierce resistance to change. Slavery was abolished, but resistance led to lynching and Jim Crow. The Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but resistance kept schools segregated for many years after the court’s ruling. Today, the state is resisting the positive change that the Racial Justice Act sought to create and trying to execute people whose trials were poisoned by racism.

“What particularly is the role of this court, which is the leader of the judiciary in NC? It is not simply to sit and watch this change come about; it is about signaling that there is a change and taking the leadership in seeing that change come about. These are cases which present not just an opportunity for this court to lead, but we submit, they highlight and emphasize the responsibility that this court has to lead.”

RJA Attorney Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project

Cassandra Stubbs took on the state’s argument that evidence of racial bias in capital cases, which was exposed by the RJA, should be thrown out of court because the law was later repealed. “Never before has a state done what the state of North Carolina is attempting to do here, and never before has any court sanctioned dismissal of comparable allegations and proof of racial bias. The state’s position is, now that the Racial Justice Act has been repealed, we should forget about the evidence of discrimination and move on. But … the court cannot look away.”

It wasn’t just the attorneys who recognized the importance of these cases. Many community members turned out to support the Racial Justice Act.


NC Sen. Floyd McKissick, who helped make RJA law

Click here to listen to McKissick talk about the RJA on the State of Things


Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP


Jean Parks, left, an Asheville advocate for murder victim families, with CDPL executive director Gretchen Engel


The siblings of Al Harden, who is on NC death row
NC Rep. Marcia Morey
Tilmon Golphin’s uncle holding a childhood photo of Tilmon and his family


Now we wait for the court’s decision. We hope the justices will seize this opportunity to help create a system that lives up to its promise of equal justice for all.




Another innocent person is exonerated after falsely confessing. Here’s how these coerced confessions happen

This week, James Blackmon was freed after 35 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted in Wake County, based on his own false confession — which police dragged out of him after hours of coercive interrogation. Here, CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger explains how false confessions happen.

Most of us think, “I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit.” But the sad reality is, people do it all the time

More than a quarter of DNA exonerations involve a false confession. North Carolina’s longest serving death row exonerees, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were sentenced to death and spent a combined 60 years in prison because police interrogators manipulated them into taking responsibility for a terrible crime they had nothing to do with. And how many more Henrys and Leons are sitting in North Carolina’s prisons? 

Many American law enforcement officers are trained to conduct interrogations in ways that recklessly encourage false confessions. Using the popular Reid Technique, interrogators first examine a suspect’s body language for clues that supposedly indicate guilt. In truth, these non-verbal cues often indicate simple nervousness. But once interrogators decide a suspect is guilty, their only goal becomes to obtain an admissible confession. They might weaken a suspect’s defenses by depriving them of sleep and food. Or lie to a suspect, confusing them with invented but convincing evidence of their own guilt. Or they might minimize the seriousness of the suspect’s supposed actions, offering morally acceptable motives, such as accident or self-defense, which the suspect might endorse in hopes of ending the interrogation. 

You’ve probably seen all this on TV police dramas, but it’s ruining the lives of real-life innocent people. Today, a three-judge panel in Wake County exonerated James Blackmon, a man with severe mental illness who was manipulated into confessing to a 1979 murder at St. Augustine’s College. The flimsiest of evidence brought police to Blackmon’s bedside at Dorothea Dix, a mental hospital where Blackmon was confined. Four years after the murder of St. Aug’s student Helena Payton, long after the case had gone cold, police received a tip that an anonymous patient at Dix had confessed to a similar-sounding crime. Though there was no patient at Dix with the name the informant gave, police somehow ended up interrogating Blackmon.

Blackmon’s mental illness was immediately apparent. He compared himself to Dracula, claimed to have telepathic powers and the ability to cause natural disasters, and reported seeing UFOs. Officers noted that he wore a cape like Superman. In addition to suffering from schizoaffective disorder, a major psychotic illness, Blackmon’s IQ has tested as low as 69. Studies have found that those with mental and cognitive disabilities are more likely to give false confessions. 

Despite his vulnerabilities and the lack of any evidence linking him to the crime, police interrogated Blackmon over and over. In fact, according to false confession expert Allison Redlich, they used Blackmon’s mental illness to manipulate him. Eventually, Blackmon agreed with the officers that “the bad James Blackmon” must have killed Payton while the “good James Blackmon” was somewhere else. But, tellingly, Blackmon did not even know basic facts of the crime, including how Payton was killed. 

Blackmon’s “confession” was the only evidence against him. Detectives never found any physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking him to Helena Payton or the crime scene. In fact, there is physical evidence pointing to another suspect, and it now seems likely that Blackmon was in New York when Payton was killed. Yet, facing the possibility of a death sentence, Blackmon pled guilty and received a life sentence, even while still proclaiming his innocence. 

Despite compelling evidence that the confession was false, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman fought Blackmon’s exoneration. She could have agreed to his release, as the prosecutor did in Henry and Leon’s case. Instead, she said the burden was on him to prove his innocence, an extremely high bar that stops many innocent people from ever being released from prison. Now that Blackmon has been ruled innocent by the three-judge panel, his case casts further doubt on the reliability of confessions, the techniques law enforcement officers use to obtain them, and prosecutors’ decisions to rely on them to secure convictions and induce pleas. Today will be a hollow victory for a man who has spent 35 unjustified years in prison — unless prosecutors and police use this as an occasion to reevaluate the widespread practices that lead to wrongful convictions.

Coming up: Racial Justice Act cases will put evidence of death penalty racism before the North Carolina Supreme Court


A big day is coming up, and we need your help! Beginning one week from today, North Carolina’s highest court will hear six cases under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. These cases go to the heart of our fight to end the racist death penalty.

They include stunning evidence of racism in death penalty trials. The court must decide whether that evidence will get its day in court, or whether it will be thrown away. The decision comes down to whether the state will be allowed to execute people whose death sentences are tainted by racism.

Just look at some of the evidence these six death row prisoners have uncovered:

  • A prosecutor referred to a defendant as “a big black bull” during closing arguments.
  • During jury selection at a black man’s trial, two white jurors suggested that he should have been lynched, yet were allowed to remain in the jury pool.
  • At another trial, the sheriff’s department cordoned off the area behind the defense table with crime scene tape, prejudicing the jury and forcing the defendant’s black family to sit in the back of the courtroom.
  • Prosecutors wrote insulting notes about black jurors. A black juror with criminal history was a “thug” while a white juror who trafficked in drugs was “a fine guy.” A black juror was a “blk wino” while a white juror with a DUI conviction was a “country boy – ok.” A Black woman was acceptable because she was “from a respectable BLK family.”
  • A statistical study showed that prosecutors in the counties where the trials took place routinely struck qualified black jurors at far higher rates than white jurors, denying African American citizens the fundamental right to wield power in the jury box and defendants the right to a jury of their peers.

We need you to:

  1. Attend the hearings and invite your friends. The NC Supreme Court will hear arguments in five of the cases on August 26, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and the sixth case on August 27, at 9:30 a.m. Watch on WRAL if you’re unable to attend in person.
  2. Follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter and share our posts.
  3. Spread the word. Your voice matters. Write a letter to the editor. Talk to your friends. Think local, think statewide, think about your regional newspaper, faith group, or book club. Share this site and share your thoughts on why capital punishment must come to an end.

Go here for a Racial Justice Act quick fact sheet to help you write your letter, craft your speech, or hand out at your event.

Go here for the full story of the Racial Justice Act and why it matters in our fight to end the death penalty.




Fact Sheet: The North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Aug. 15, 2019

  • The 2009 Racial Justice Act in North Carolina allowed death row prisoners who could prove that discrimination affected their trials and sentences to be resentenced to life in prison without parole. The law led to the discovery that African American citizens were being denied the fundamental democratic right to serve on juries in death penalty cases.
  • In six Racial Justice Act cases now before the N.C. Supreme Court, death row defendants submitted clear and compelling evidence that jury discrimination tainted their trials. The state is seeking to dismiss all six cases and slam the door on this evidence without it being heard in court.

  • In 2013, a newly Republican-led legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act. Nevertheless, the evidence the Racial Justice Act revealed must be addressed. North Carolina constitutional law dating back to the Civil War ensures defendants the right to have legally filed claims heard in court, regardless of whether the law is later repealed.

  • Four of the defendants were the only prisoners to receive hearings under the Racial Justice Act. All prevailed and received sentences of life without parole, but they were returned to death row after the legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013. The other two had their cases dismissed without ever being heard. The State Supreme Court must now decide whether the constitution requires that the six defendants facing execution get a fair hearing on their evidence of racial bias.

  • Denying evidence of racism its day in court is unfair and unconstitutional.  Dismissing these claims would be a stain on North Carolina’s record that would erode public trust in its criminal justice system.

  • These cases involve key civil rights: the right of citizens to serve on a jury and be selected in a manner free of discrimination, and the right of capital defendants to a fair trial, free of discrimination. It is illegal to strike any juror based on race, and these cases test North Carolina’s resolve to enforce this vital civil rights protection.

  • The evidence shows that, in the six cases, N.C. prosecutors engaged in racially discriminatory conduct. For example, in one case, the prosecutor made derogatory references to African Americans as “blk wino” and “thug,” while accepting white jurors with criminal backgrounds as “fine” or “ok.”

  • The evidence also shows that racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty is pervasive. A statistical study found that, in the defendants’ counties, prosecutors excluded black jurors at more than twice the rate of white jurors. Documents showed that prosecutors were specifically trained in how to disguise racially motivated strikes of black jurors.

Go here to learn how to take action against North Carolina’s racist death penalty.

The whitening of the jury: How discrimination thrives in NC courtrooms

Black people have a constitutional right to serve on juries, just like white people. That should go without saying. But the reality is that prosecutors use all kinds of tricks and excuses to stop black citizens from sitting on juries. In this 5-minute audio documentary created by students at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, CDPL attorney Johanna Jennings explains how this form of racial discrimination persists in the courtroom. The students did a fabulous job and it’s worth a listen.

This documentary is just in time. Later this month, the NC Supreme Court will hear arguments from six death row prisoners who have uncovered evidence that people of color were illegally struck from their juries. Learn more here about the Racial Justice Act and how you can get involved.


One note: The documentary’s creators, Shaakira Raheem and Khalid Bashr, imagined some fictional questions that prosecutors might ask of black jurors like, “Do you have a birth certificate?” While these are not the actual questions prosecutors have asked black jurors in North Carolina courtrooms, some of the questions they actually have asked are equally outrageous and demeaning. For example:

  • In a Cumberland County courtroom, the prosecutor asked a black man if he had trouble reading and whether he went “straight through” school. No white jurors were asked similar questions.
  • Another Cumberland prosecutor asked a black man if he listened to Bob Marley or was familiar with the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie — implying that he might sympathize with black defendants who practiced Rastafarianism. Again, no white jurors were asked similar questions.
  • In Rowan County, a prosecutor asked a black woman if she would face criticism from her black friends if she voted to convict a black person of a crime.
  • In Transylvania County, a black juror was asked if her child’s father was paying child support.


Johanna Jennings, right

Creating monsters out of human beings

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Erica Washington, an attorney at CDPL

The failures of our broken criminal legal system don’t just affect the people we incarcerate and condemn to death. The injustice of our system ripples out into the world, affecting countless lives. This weekend, advocates and loved ones of incarcerated people shared their stories at the Carolina Justice Policy Center‘s Poetic Justice event. Then, spoken word artists created responsive poems. Here, please read the story shared by attorney Erica Washington, who represents people on death row at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

See two other death penalty attorneys tell their stories at last year’s event, along with the responsive poems: Elizabeth Hambourger and Ken Rose

Creating Locusts

By Erica Washington

The other day I came across an old episode of the popular NPR podcast, Invisibilia. The episode, which was titled “True You,” challenged the popular notion that each of us has one authentic and consistent self. Often thought of as one’s endemic personality. Curiously though, the hosts of the episode began with a story about locusts.

So Locusts have been synonymous with devastation throughout history. Swarms have devastated crops, contributed to countless disease outbreaks, and quite literally dictated patterns of human migration throughout time.

Their infamy is well known. They’ve played prominent roles in the Iliad, the Bible, the Quran. The Ancient Egyptians carved locust-like shapes into their tombs, while the Chinese, in ninth century BC, appointed a regiment – an entire police force- of anti-locust officers.

Notwithstanding this long and torturous history, farmers and scientists alike struggled to understand the seemingly sudden appearance of these villainous insects. They searched in vain for initial breeding locations and yearned for clues in the soil. Finding no answers, locusts quickly acquired an otherworldly reputation. In the Bible, for example, their sudden appearance is attributed to Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites, while Assyrians wore these elaborate and detailed locust shaped charms believing in their power to ward off plagues.

In fact, it was not until 1921 that scientists finally solved this origin mystery. It turns out that the answer was hopping in front of them the entire time. Scientists realized that locusts and grasshoppers are not two distinct species as previously thought. When a period of drought is followed by rapid vegetation growth, grasshoppers pack together into tight crowds, resulting in the rubbing of their hind legs and the release of serotonin in their brains. When all of these factors coalesce, it causes significant changes in their behavior: they breed like crazy, form swarms, and strip crops.

Okay – I’m sure many of you are wondering what the origin story of locusts has to do with the criminal legal system, but hopefully by the end of my story you’ll see that, in fact, it has everything to do this system. I represent individuals on death row. Essentially, what I do is work to help people see the grasshopper, when inventing a locust feels so much easier. I do this work because I know the danger that results when we misunderstand why we are who we are.

Byron Waring was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of Lauren Redman. Investigators said Redman was raped by Byron’s co-defendant and stabbed more than 20 times.  Byron, 19-years-old at the time, is on death row for her murder.

The blindness that contributed to centuries of agricultural devastation operates to a similar degree in my work representing men and women accused of violent crimes. For our ancestors to see the grasshopper and locust as one in the same, they had to accept the general premise that grasshoppers, under certain circumstances, could behave like locusts. Instead, unable to make this mental bridge, they invented a new fictional species. They invented the locust.

And this doesn’t just operate on death row, right. We’re constantly inventing fictional species – the welfare queen, the super predator. This allows us to fashion narratives around an us and a them – which always feels easier. In law school, I came across Section 738 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, which makes it illegal for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard above the state poverty level. Again, it’s ILLEGAL for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard ABOVE the state poverty level. According to the Louisiana Legislature, this is because [c]itizens should not be worse off economically and living in conditions that are below those granted to inmates whose living standards are being paid for and subsidized by the hard-working and law-abiding people of the state of Louisiana.

This reasoning, espoused by the Louisiana’s statute but pervasive throughout a US conception of justice, hinges upon a strict distinction between “inmates” and “hard working, law-abiding people.” The law condemns one category to live at the line of poverty because of their deservedness in relation to the other. There is no hint of fluidity existing between these two categories, or the possibility of existing within both simultaneously. You’re either a “hard-working and law-abiding” citizen of Louisiana, or you are a criminal. You’re either a grasshopper, or you are a locust.

As in the case of Section 738, this flawed dichotomy leads us to focus all of our attention on punishing the mosimmediate agent of the harm, as opposed to the origin. Thus, we make it illegal to spend more on those most in need than that which will cover basic essentials. We disenfranchise felons and support employment and housing discrimination, telling ourselves that that’s what they deserve. We blind ourselves to our shared humanity, call them criminals, and then treat them like that is all they’ve been, all they’ll ever be, and all their fault.

Death row is the pinnacle of this flawed dichotomy. My clients are called monsters, demons, and beasts. Similar to the infamy locusts enjoyed for millennia, we attribute their behavior to inexplicable moral failings, not environmental ones. Not the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that characterized so many of their lives. Like locusts, we immortalize their crimes through movies, Netflix series, and folklore. We invoke the devil to make sense of their acts and thus find it appropriate to resort to barbaric executions to rid us of them. These are the narratives we create. Have we learned nothing from the locust?

Byron was traumatized. It was multidimensional and pervasive. His trauma was compounded by a childhood that lacked any consistent, predictable, and attuned parenting. But Byron never had the opportunity to make meaning out of his trauma. And his trauma was not unique. We know that studies estimate between 75 and 92% of those entering the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma.

What I’ve learned about trauma is that an essential part of healing is the development of a shared narrative about what happened, and if possible, why it happened. Narratives are the stories we tell to make sense of ourselves, our lives and the situations we encounter and confront. These narratives are the foundations upon which meaningful and useful remedies can be built. They’re how we avoid useless remedies such as a fleet of anti-locust officers. But Byron is on death row. How does he, in and out of a cage since age 14, soon to spend a majority of his life at central prison, how does he construct a narrative about what happened which moves beyond those that the confines of the row produce? How do I, his attorney, help him create a richer, more complete, and expansive narrative which moves beyond those that the confines of the law produce.

The narratives we create do damage. As long as we continue to tell stories that equate human beings to swarming monsters driven to destruction by some inexplicable personal moral failing, the cycle of harm will continue. As long as our narratives are fashioned around an us and a them, they will not provide the foundation for meaningful and useful remedies. We can do little to prevent harm if we fail to recognize its origin. How different history may have been if locusts were never invented, if farmers could point to grasshoppers in volatile environments, as opposed to charms around people’s necks, to explain the existence of the harm. Yet history repeats itself. We criminalize poverty instead of addressing it. We spend scraps on rehabilitation and sit by as 75 percent of prisoners are rearrested within five years of release. If we saw these men and women as the grasshoppers they are, and not the locusts we’ve created, maybe we’d find that we have more power to address the societal and environmental causes of the harm than otherwise believed. Maybe a story in which we’re implicated would cause us to care.

In our constant search for understanding, let us not blind ourselves to answers hopping right beneath our noses. Yes, these narratives will be complex, and origins of harm will not all be obvious or even able to be known, but killing what we don’t understand brings us no closer to comprehension. Byron did harm. Real, significant, heartbreaking harm. But he deserves the truth and fullness of his humanity, as did Lauren. Because we know that there is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” We all must tell fuller, more complete, more challenging narratives. It is critical. We must make clear that when you kill a locust you always kill a grasshopper. You cannot execute one and keep the other.


Charles Finch is 10th innocent man freed after being sentenced to death in North Carolina

Charles Finch exoneration
Charles Ray Finch is wheeled out of prison after more than four decades of wrongful incarceration

Charles Ray Finch was released from prison last week, 43 years after he was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His family cheered and thanked God as he emerged from the prison gates, and at Finch’s request, they all went for barbecue.

Exonerations always have a celebratory feel of justice finally being served. But don’t mistake Finch’s release for justice, or for anything other than a tragedy.

Finch spent his life in prison being degraded and brutalized, because that’s what the American prison system is designed to do. His daughter, who was 2 when he went to prison, grew up without him. Finch struggled with anger and depression, and is now 81 years old and in poor health. He was pushed out of prison in a wheelchair.

He was convicted in 1976 for the robbery and killing of a convenience store clerk. Investigators conducted an improper suspect lineup and then lied about it. They pressured witnesses to implicate Finch. Yet, no one has been or likely will be punished for their role in this miscarriage of justice.

The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic spent nearly 19 years working for Finch’s release. Something is wrong when it takes that long to free a single innocent person.

Ten people have now been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina. All of them were poor, and most of them were black. More innocent people remain in prison, waiting year after year for the system to “work.”

This is the system that North Carolina lawmakers say you should trust to decide life and death, and to carry out executions. It’s a system that’s profoundly broken and still threatens the lives of 142 people on death row.

Let’s not ever mistake an exoneration for something to celebrate.


Posted: May 28, 2019

Henry McCollum death row exoneration
Henry McCollum was freed in 2014 after serving 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. His face at the moment a judge granted his freedom says it all.
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