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Exonerated men awarded $75 million for wrongful convictions  

 

A federal jury has awarded $75 million to two men who were wrongfully convicted and spent nearly 31 years on death row.   

Brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were convicted in 1984 and sentenced to death for the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl. But in 2014 DNA evidence finally set them free, and in 2015, then-governor Pat McCrory issued the men a pardon of innocence. The man who is presumed to have been responsible for the murder died in prison while serving a life sentence for a different murder.

Abrams

Abrams

 

The May 14 verdict was against two State Bureau of Investigations agents, Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead. The eight-person jury awarded each brother $31 million in compensatory damages—$1 million for every year spent in prison—and a total of $13 million in punitive damages.  

Also on May 14, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office agreed to a $9 million settlement for its role in the case. The town of Red Springs has already settled its case for $1 million in 2017. 

“The first jury to hear all of the evidence—including the wrongly suppressed evidence—found Henry and Leon to be innocent, found them to have been demonstrably and excruciatingly wronged, and has done what the law can do to make it right at this late date,” said Elliot Abrams of Cheshire Parker & Schneider in Raleigh, who was part of the brothers’ legal team. 

In September 1983, the girl’s half-naked body was found in a soybean field near her Red Springs home. She had been raped and suffocated. Police said that a local teenager told them she heard that McCollum, then 19, was involved.  

McCollum, who grew up in New Jersey, was in town visiting his mother. He initially denied the accusations but confessed after questioning by investigators and detectives. Brown also confessed, but the brothers’ legal team argued that the confessions were coerced by investigators who fed the teens details of the case and penned the confessions. They contended that McCollum and Brown were intellectually challenged and didn’t fully understand the confessions. 

The state also withheld exculpatory evidence, the brothers’ attorneys asserted.  

“Among other things, evidence that law enforcement considered the real killer [to be] a suspect, that law enforcement used coercive tactics to interrogate Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, and the identity of the person who initially implicated Mr. McCollum, as well as the fact that less than a week later she told police that she lied to them and in fact had no information that Mr. McCollum was involved,” Abrams said. 

According to court records, a polygraph cast doubt on a prosecution witness’ testimony, and police failed to investigate a fingerprint—belonging to neither McCollum nor Brown—lifted from a beer can at the scene. 

But even more damning evidence pointed directly to another man as a suspect. Roscoe Artis, who lived near the field where the victim was found, was at the time suspected of raping and killing a woman in Gaston County and had numerous arrests and convictions for assaulting women and attempted rape. And just weeks after the girl was killed, with McCollum and Brown in custody, the body of an 18-year-old woman was found in a nearby field. She had also been raped, killed in a manner similar to the 11-year-old girl and the Gaston County woman, and left partially clothed.   

In August 1984, Artis was convicted of murdering the 18-year-old. Still, the trial of McCollum and Brown moved forward. Less than two months later, they were found guilty of raping and murdering the 11-year-old, despite no physical evidence linking them to the crime.  

In 2010, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission got involved in the case at Brown’s request. Its investigation focused on a crucial piece of evidence, a DNA-bearing cigarette butt found next to the girl’s body. The DNA was analyzed in 2005 and excluded McCollum and Brown, but could not match it to a specific person. Later testing by the commission confirmed the DNA to be that of Artis. 

Artis was not prosecuted in the case because he was already on death row for killing the 18-year-old. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died behind bars in December.   

In a September 2, 2014, motion for appropriate relief hearing, Robeson County Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser granted a motion by the men’s attorneys and the local prosecutor to vacate the convictions. McCollum and Brown were released from prison the next day, records show.   

Allen and Snead were represented by Scott MacLatchie and Adam Peoples of Hall Booth Smith in Charlotte. MacLatchie did not respond to a request for comment.   

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher 

VERDICT REPORT —WRONGFUL CONVICTION 

Amount: $75 million  

Injuries alleged: Severe physical and psychological harm from incarceration 

Case name: Tarleton et al. v. Sealey et al. 

Court: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina 

Case No. 5:15-cv-451 

Date of verdict: May 14 

Attorneys for plaintiff: Elliot Abrams of Cheshire Parker & Schneider in Raleigh and E. Desmond Hogan, Catherine A. Stetson, W. David Maxwell, and Elizabeth C. Lockwood of Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C. 

Attorneys for defendant: Scott MacLatchie and Adam Peoples of Hall Booth Smith in Charlotte 


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