When a North Carolina judge last week vacated the prison sentences of 50-year-old Henry Lee McCollum, who had spent nearly 30 years on the state’s death row, and his 46-year-old half-brother, Leon Brown, sentenced to life in prison, for a heinous rape and murder DNA evidence had finally proved they had not committed, the court room resounded with cries of relief and “Thank you, Jesus!” from their families and friends
But it’s vitally important to note the reaction in another quarter to this latest piercing evidence of how broken America’s criminal justice system is: the profound silence from those who continue to assert the death penalty is justified as a moral and effective tool for fighting crime and punishing those convicted of committing murder.
If America’s death-penalty advocates had had their way, Henry Lee McCollum would today have been dead for at least 20 years and Leon Brown would be locked away from society and forgotten for the crime neither of them committed. Indeed, in two unrelated death-penalty cases that came before the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia cited McCollum by name as especially worthy of being executed. At press time, Justice Scalia was still silent.
We should no longer pretend that the injustice these men and their families and friends endured is an “exception.” Instead, we ought to regard the nation’s criminal justice system – its four-decade long war on drugs having given America the largest prison population in the world – as a distant cousin of the former Soviet Union’s infamous gulag archipelago.
That was the name the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave to the network of prison camps and colonies –describing them as “a chain of islands”— scattered across the USSR’s vast territory and the administrative system that over nearly a half century consumed millions and millions of ordinary criminals, prisoners of war, and political prisoners alike. In 1973, Solzhenitsyn, who himself had been imprisoned for 11 years, published his stunning description of that system, The Gulag Archipelago—a monument in words to both the cruelty human beings can inflict on one another and the resilience of the human spirit.
The tragedy that befell Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, both of whom are mentally disabled, certainly exemplifies the former. The details of how the police coerced the two, then teenagers of 19 and 15 whose mental disability was obvious, into confessing, and how the state’s judicial system then failed to protect them are horrifying.
As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate.com last week, “This case highlights the same well-known and extensively documented problems that can lead to false arrests and convictions: Police who are incentivized to find a suspect quickly, rather than the right one carefully; false confessions elicited after improper questioning; exculpatory evidence never turned over; the prosecution of vulnerable, mentally ill, or very young suspects in ways that take advantage of their innocence rather than protecting it; prosecutorial zeal that has far more to do with the pursuit of victories than the pursuit of truth; and a death penalty appeals system that treats this screwed-up process of investigation and conviction as both conclusive and unreviewable.”
The saving grace of this case, as with many of the cases of the unjustly convicted who finally receive justice, is the resilience they display. One can witness that in the words Leon Brown spoke in a videotaped interview when his release was imminent. “I have never stopped believing that one day I’d be able to walk out that door,” he said. “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. I never got the chance to realize those dreams. Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”
It’s impossible to say this is the most horrific of the nation’s 317 post-conviction DNA exonerations that have been cataloged by The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization that investigates claims of innocence made by prisoners’ convicted of rape and murder. It’s certainly believable that some of those have executed over the long history of the death penalty in the US were innocent. And it’s certainly believable that there are many more men, women and juveniles now locked away in America’s own gulag archipelago who are innocent or were convicted by fundamentally flawed police, prosecutorial, or judicial processes.
America’s pledge of allegiance promises a society “with liberty and justice for all.” More and more, our criminal justice system is proving that there remains a vast gap between that rhetoric and the reality.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.