"I just don't believe that when people are being unjustly oppressed that they should let someone else set rules for them by which they can come out from under that oppression."
Renewing the Struggle for Racial Justice, Post-Ferguson
We must face the true causes of the chasm between white and black America.
Ferguson, Missouri. Sanford, Florida. Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Oakland. Chicago. Staten Island. The grim roster of cities where police or vigilante violence has resulted in the death of an African-American just keeps growing. The streets of Ferguson have quieted now, after roiling for eleven days with the anguish of protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot by a police officer on August 9 after being stopped for walking in the street. The police, fortified by a Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to civilian law enforcement—with no training requirements and little oversight—responded with riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets. (President Obama has ordered a review of the program, but any attempt to curb it will be met with resistance.)
Yet it’s not only the deaths that have sparked fury. It’s also the realization on the part of those horrified and traumatized by the killings that many Americans are willing to accept and excuse the state and individual violence visited upon black Americans. We see this acceptance in the grave injustices following these deaths: the police in Ferguson left Brown’s body in the street for hours, without even covering it, and refused to provide details about the shooting, instead releasing misleading information about what precipitated his fatal encounter with the officer. The police in Sanford, Florida, didn’t arrest George Zimmerman until forty-five days after he had killed Trayvon Martin, and a jury later acquitted him of murder and manslaughter. This divide is reflected in the fact that, according to a Pew poll, 80 percent of African-Americans felt that the shooting of Michael Brown raised important issues about race, while only 37 percent of whites did. On one side of the chasm, people are in agony; the other side is acting like there’s nothing wrong at all.
Those who are in agony, however, increasingly know that they are not alone. And the anger sparked by these incidents of inhumanity is no longer isolated. As Mychal Denzel Smith explores in this special issue, young black organizers are laying the groundwork for a new grassroots movement for racial equality, focused on the critical issues facing African-Americans today: not just police brutality but mass incarceration, unemployment, voting rights, educational disparities and more. As the fiftieth anniversary of many of the civil-rights movement’s proudest accomplishments passes, these activists are registering voters, delivering petitions, drafting legislation—and creating community. While many of these groups were born out of the pain of Trayvon Martin’s killing, they aren’t solely focused on that death. Instead, they are developing a democratic, inclusive leadership model that brings a diverse set of concerns to their work.
As this new grassroots network comes into its own, one very prominent voice has joined theirs to call attention to the plight of African-Americans and Latinos. Last February, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, a $300 million initiative to close the “opportunity gaps” facing boys and young men of color. The problem, writes Dani McClain in this issue, is not only that the effort neglects the needs of girls and young women of color, but also that the initiative focuses on changing the behavior of the very people who are victims of discrimination, harassment and violence, rather than confronting its sources. Pressing us all to face and remedy the true causes of the chasm separating white America from black and brown America will be the vital work of this new vanguard of activists.
Read more from our special issue on racial justice:
Mychal Denzel Smith: “How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism”
Paula J. Giddings: “It’s Time for a 21st-Century Anti-Lynching Movement”
Rinku Sen: “As People of Color, We’re Not All in the Same Boat”
Dani McClain: “Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative—for Boys Only”
Frank Barat: “A Q&A With Angela Davis on Black Power, Feminism and the Prison-Industrial Complex”
Melissa Harris-Perry: “Obama Is Responsible for the Protests in Ferguson—but Not in the Way You Think ”
"Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo - obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other"
"There is no justice in America, but it is the fight for justice that sustains you."
DNA Evidence Clears Two Men in 1983 Murder
By JONATHAN M. KATZ and ERIK ECKHOLM
September 2, 2014
New York Times
Credit: Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer
LUMBERTON, N.C. — Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released Tuesday by a judge here.
The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.
The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential harm from false, coerced confessions and of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.
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As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a Superior Court judge in Robeson County, Douglas B. Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and Mr. McCollum’s death sentence and ordering their release. The courtroom erupted into a standing ovation.
Mr. Brown, 46, has been serving a life sentence. Mr. McCollum, 50, has spent three decades on death row. They were expected to be freed on Wednesday. Credit Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer
“We waited all these long years for this,” said James McCollum, the father of the man released from death row. “Thank you, Jesus,” he repeated.
The exoneration ends decades of legal and political battles over a case that became notorious in North Carolina and received nationwide discussion, vividly reflecting the country’s fractured views of the death penalty.
The two young defendants were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, the 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting district attorney who was later profiled by “60 Minutes” as the country’s “deadliest D.A.” because he sought the death penalty so often.
For death penalty supporters, the horrifying facts of the girl’s rape and murder only emphasized the justice of applying the ultimate penalty. As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr. McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers that accused a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.
In 1994, when the United States Supreme Court turned down a request to review the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described Mr. McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection. But Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissent, noted that Mr. McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that “this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.”
The exoneration based on DNA evidence was another example of the way tainted convictions have unraveled in recent years because of new technology and legal defense efforts like those of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit legal group in North Carolina that took up the case.
In the courtroom here on Tuesday, the current district attorney, Johnson Britt (no relation to the original prosecutor), citing his obligation to “seek justice,” not simply gain convictions, said he would not try to prosecute the men again because the state “does not have a case.”
Mr. McCollum was 19 and Mr. Brown was 15 when they were picked up by the police in Red Springs, a town of fewer than 4,000 people in the southern part of the state, on the night of Sept. 28, 1983. The officers were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie, 11, who had been raped and suffocated with her underwear crammed down her throat, her body left in a soybean field.
No physical evidence tied Mr. McCollum or Mr. Brown, both African-American, as was the victim, to the crime. But a local teenager cast suspicion on Mr. McCollum, who with his half brother had recently moved from New Jersey and was considered an outsider.
After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Mr. McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.
“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” Mr. McCollum said in a recent videotaped interview with The News & Observer. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”
After he signed a statement written in longhand by investigators, he asked, “Can I go home now?” according to an account by his defense lawyers.
Before the night was done, Mr. Brown, after being told that his half brother had confessed and facing similar threats that he could be executed if he did not cooperate, also signed a confession. Both men subsequently recanted at trial, saying their confessions had been coerced. The other two men mentioned in Mr. McCollum’s confession were never prosecuted.
Both defendants initially received death sentences for murder. After new trials were ordered by the State Supreme Court, Mr. McCollum was again sentenced to death, while Mr. Brown was convicted only of rape, and his sentence was reduced to life. (In later years, the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for minors and the
Lawyers from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, working with private law firms, began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found near sticks used in the murder.
Recent DNA testing by an independent state agency, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, of evidence gathered in the initial investigation found a match for the DNA on the cigarette butt — not to either of the imprisoned men, but to Roscoe Artis, who lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found and who had a history of convictions for sexual assault.
Only weeks after the murder, in fact, Mr. Artis confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs. Mr. Artis received a death sentence, later reduced to life, for that crime and remains in prison. Officials never explained why, despite the remarkable similarities in the crimes, they kept their focus on Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown even as the men proclaimed their innocence.
The only witness at the hearing Tuesday was Sharon Stellato of the innocence inquiry commission, who under questioning from defense lawyers described the lack of evidence tying the two men to the crime as well as the DNA findings implicating Mr. Artis. The district attorney said he had no evidence to the contrary.
Joe Freeman Britt, the original prosecutor, told The News & Observer last week that he still believed the men were guilty.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown returned to prison to file the paperwork for their release, which to the frustration of defense lawyers and the men’s relatives was delayed, apparently until Wednesday.
As exoneration appeared likely, Mr. McCollum recently reflected on his fate.
“I have never stopped believing that one day I’d be able to walk out that door,” he said in the videotaped interview with The News & Observer.
“A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything,” he said. “I never got a chance to realize those dreams.
“Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”
Jonathan M. Katz reported from Lumberton, and Erik Eckholm from New York