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Three Years Free after 30 Years of Innocence in Prison

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Thursday, August 31, 2017   

RALEIGH, N.C. – Saturday marks the third anniversary of the biggest exoneration in North Carolina history.

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were declared innocent after serving more than 30 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit. Their story is chronicled in a report released Thursday by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The center’s executive director Gretchen Engel explained why it's important for their story to be documented and studied.

"Thirty years on death row; it just exposes all the ways that human error can contribute at so many different stages of the capital case, and why we shouldn't be practicing the death penalty because of human error,” Engel said.

McCollum and Brown were arrested as teenagers, and both were classified as intellectually disabled. They were accused of the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl. DNA evidence later proved that the true culprit was a serial rapist who lived next to where the girl's body was found.

Engel said this case is not an isolated incident, and the CDPL has reason to believe there are others serving time - some on death row - who were wrongfully convicted.

"It's not an anomaly by any stretch of the imagination,” she said. "We've done other reports on wrongful prosecutions where people are prosecuted with flimsy evidence. We can see this is all part of one system where human error infects so many different stages of the process."

Biological evidence exists for less than one-third of the 144 inmates serving on North Carolina's death row. Most of them were tried more than 15 years ago, before reforms were implemented to prevent the conviction of the innocent.

Both McCollum and Brown were pardoned by the governor and are seeking financial retribution in a civil lawsuit.


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