Death Row Roulette: Innocence Revealed

Henry McCollum spent 30 years on North Carolina's death row for a rape and murder he did not commit. Leon Brown, McCollum's half-brother, also was convicted and sentenced to death for that crime. The men, both intellectually disabled, languished in prison for three long decades, all the while recanting the confessions they had made as frightened teenagers in response to police questioning. And finally, last week, McCollum and Brown were released based on DNA testing that revealed another man -- a convicted sex offender serving time for a rape and murder committed in the same month and in the same county -- committed the crime.

The two brothers are the eighth and ninth men in North Carolina to be exonerated after being sentenced to death. There are 159 death row inmates in North Carolina. To put that in perspective, roughly 1 in 17 people on North Carolina's death row should not ever have been there.

And that's just the known numbers of innocents from North Carolina's death row. A 2014 national study of death sentences found that 1 in 25 -- or 4.1 percent -- of people who were sentenced to death were wrongly convicted. That is a stunning number. There are few among us who ever would step foot again on an airplane if there was a 4.1 percent chance that every time we did, we would die in a crash. Nor would many of us agree to surgical procedures if the risk were that high we would die on the table.

And bear in mind that 4.1 percent is not just a statistic. It's a number that refers to people. Real people. People who spent time on death row. People whose lives were completely upended, who were confined in the most restrictive and punitive conditions imaginable, whose families were devastated, who were painted as monsters, who watched as their fellow inmates were marched to their deaths at the hands of the State, who waited, day after day for their turn to be executed. For something they did not do.

Add to that the very grim reality that there are some who appear to have actually been executed for crimes they did not commit. The Death Penalty Information Center identifies 9 men who were executed despite strong evidence of innocence. Imagine what it must be like to face down your death by the State for something which you did not do. Imagine being Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death for the arson-murder of his three young children. The fire which claimed his family now appears to have been an accident. His conviction was based on faulty and unreliable fire science. He futilely proclaimed his innocence until his last dying breath, refusing to admit guilt, even when it might have saved his own life. Kafka could not have invented a more perverse nightmare.

To be fair, McCollum was probably in no great danger of being executed any time soon. The United States Supreme Court ruled that people with intellectual disabilities are ineligible for execution. And Brown's sentence had previously been reduced to life, so he faced a long, drawn out, tedious death in prison behind bars.

If the State is going to kill as punishment, it should do so only when it is absolutely certain that the person who is dying is the person who committed the crime. But as shown by the 1,426 known exonerations nationally, there is no such thing as absolute certainty in the criminal justice system. So where does that leave us? Or more fundamentally, where does that leave men like Henry McCollum?

There may be other innocents on death row who have execution dates that are active. And imminent. For whom an execution is looming. In fact, the statistics on death sentences and innocence suggest that is a near certainty.

As long as we have the death penalty, we run the risk that the State will take the life of the wrong person. Little offends democracy more than the State killing -- or even almost killing -- an innocent person. Ask McCollum.


I'll be writing more about false confessions later this month.