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Crime

Jury awards wrongfully convicted NC brothers $75 million in federal civil rights case

 
 

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown spent nearly 31 years in prison for a brutal crime they did not commit — one they were convicted of on the basis of confessions that they insisted, for decades, had been coerced.

In a federal courtroom in Raleigh late Friday afternoon, after nearly five hours of deliberation, a jury delivered the half brothers a sense of long-awaited justice.

An eight-person jury awarded McCollum and Brown $31 million each in compensatory damages — $1 million for every year they spent in prison after they were wrongfully convicted, twice, of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Red Springs. McCollum and Brown, both intellectually-disabled with IQs in the 50s, were teenagers when they were charged after they signed confessions they insisted they didn’t understand.

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The combined $62 million award in compensatory damages was part of an $84 million day for the brothers. The jury also awarded them $13 million in punitive damages after the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, one of the defendants named in the civil suit, settled its part of the case earlier on Friday for $9 million.

“I thank God,” McCollum said outside the courtroom, his eyes red from crying.

‘Excruciatingly wronged’

He and Brown had spent the previous moments embracing the team of attorneys, led by a group from the Washington, D.C. firm Hogan Lovells, who for years had worked toward this day.

“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,” Elliot Abrams, a Raleigh attorney who was part of the brothers’ legal team, said after the trial.

In some ways, McCollum and Brown had been waiting nearly 40 years for a day like Friday. Even after a Robeson County judge in 2014 overturned their convictions, their desired outcome in the civil case had been a long time coming. That judge exonerated the brothers after the emergence of DNA evidence that placed a convicted murderer named Roscoe Artis at the scene of the crime.

Henry McCollum spends time outdoors with his sister, Geraldine Brown, 49, rear, in Fayetteville, N.C. in 2015. Corey Lowenstein News & Observer file photo

The next year, in 2015, McCollum and Brown received full pardons of innocence from the state. Since then, the brothers, both Black, had pursued a federal civil rights case against law enforcement members behind their wrongful convictions.

The judgment on Friday came against former SBI agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead, both of whom were part of the original investigation in 1983 that led to McCollum and Brown’s convictions.

The SBI had been the last remaining law enforcement entity not to settle in the case, after the Red Springs Police Department settled in 2017, and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office settled on Friday before closing arguments began after four days of testimony in the civil case.

The brothers’ lawyers contended that law enforcement officers violated McCollum and Brown’s civil rights in several ways: that they coerced the brothers’ confessions; that they suppressed and fabricated evidence; that they investigated the crime in bad faith, ignoring evidence that would have pointed to another suspect; and that they violated McCollum and Brown’s due process rights.

“Coerced confessions can never be the basis for probable cause,” Des Hogan, who delivered the plaintiffs’ closing argument, told the jury on Friday.

In painstaking detail, Hogan during his 45-minute closing argument described how McCollum and Brown suffered during their incarcerations. They were both sentenced to die in 1984, at the conclusion of their first trial.

Brown, 16 at the time, became North Carolina’s youngest death row inmate. McCollum, 20 when he went to death row, remained there for most of his 31 years in prison, and became the state’s longest-serving death row inmate.

15 million lost minutes

Throughout his time on death row, McCollum endured the executions of 42 of his fellow inmates and all the while feared he would also die in prison. Some of the executed had become the closest thing McCollum had to family. After one execution, in 1986, Hogan revealed during his closing that McCollum attempted to kill himself.

Brown, meanwhile, was later re-sentenced to life in prison, where “he was victimized in unspeakable ways,” Hogan told the jury.

Toward the end of his closing argument, Hogan asked the jury to sit quietly for a minute and consider the minutes that passed slowly for McCollum and Brown over three decades. They’d lost more than 15 million minutes during their wrongful imprisonment.

Leon Brown photographed in 2015 in the home he shared with sister, Geraldine Brown and brother Henry McCollum in Fayetteville, N.C. Corey Lowenstein newsobserver.com

Scott MacLatchie, the lead defense attorney for the SBI agents, attempted during his closing argument to cast doubt on the brothers’ innocence, and downplayed the agents’ involvement in the investigation that led to the brothers’ convictions. Twice during MacLatchie’s closing, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle sustained objections to MacLatchie’s questioning of the brothers’ innocence.

“His argument that the brothers are rapists and murderers is inappropriate,” Boyle told the jury at one point, reminding its members that McCollum and Brown had received full pardons of innocence.

MacLatchie’s attempt to cast doubt on McCollum and Brown’s innocence reflected law enforcement’s overall defense strategy from the beginning of the civil case. For years, MacLatchie and the attorneys for Garth Locklear and Kenneth Sealey, the former Robeson County Sheriff’s deputies named in the civil case, argued their clients were protected by qualified immunity.

When that argument failed, first in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, and then in a federal appeals court, the deputies and SBI agents argued they did nothing wrong. In various court filings over the years, their attorneys implied at times that McCollum and Brown might be guilty, after all, despite their exonerations and pardons.

The jury on Friday delivered a swift rejection of the law enforcement’s denial of wrongdoing.

“For more than 37 years, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown have waited for recognition of the grave injustice that law enforcement inflicted upon them,” the brothers’ attorneys said in a collective statement after the trial. “Today, a jury did just that, and have finally given Henry and Leon the ability to close this horrific chapter in their lives.”

Since their exonerations in 2014, McCollum and Brown have attempted to rebuild their lives — a process that has proven difficult after 31 years in prison. Boyle barred their first lawyer in the civil case, Patrick Megaro, after he arranged predatory loans for the brothers and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars when the state paid them $750,000 each following their pardons.

‘I’ve got my freedom’

Both McCollum and Brown require guardians to manage their finances. Brown, who has been living in a group home and suffers from mental health conditions related to his time in prison, requires full-time care. On Friday afternoon, both McCollum and Brown sat outside the courtroom for hours while the jury deliberated.

Geraldine Brown laughs as her brother Henry McCollum (left) wipes away tears as he and his brother Leon Brown (right) stand in her front yard in Fayetteville, N.C. home Wednsday, Sept. 3, 2014, the day the brothers were released from prison after their rape and murder conviction was dismissed by a Robeson County Superior Court judge. The brothers spent 30 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Chuck Liddy newsobserver.com

Someone beside Brown asked him if he wanted to go for a walk to pass the time and he said he didn’t: He wanted to be there the moment the jury returned with a verdict.

Finally, a little after 6 p.m., it did. After Boyle read it, delivering the news of a $75 million judgment, McCollum and Brown exchanged emotional embraces with their legal team.

Some of their lawyers believed the $75 million judgment to be the largest for a wrongful conviction case in the nation’s history. Afterward, the brothers dabbed their eyes, unsure what to say while people congratulated them and hugged them.

“I’ve got my freedom,” McCollum said moments later, before turning his thoughts to people he knew on death row. “There’s still a lot of innocent people in prison today. And they don’t deserve to be there.”

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