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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

The Unlikely Exoneration of Henry McCollum

Henry McCollum in Sept. 2014.
Of all the men and women on death row in North Carolina, Henry McCollum’s guilty verdict looked airtight. He had signed a confession full of grisly details. 

Written in crude and unapologetic language, it told the story of four boys, he among them, raping and suffocating 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. His younger brother, Leon Brown, also admitted involvement in the crime. Both were sentenced to death in 1984.

Leon was later resentenced to life in prison. But Henry remained on death row for 30 years and became Exhibit A in the defense of the death penalty. 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to continue capital punishment nationwide. 

During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers, the example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed.

What almost no one saw — not even his top-notch defense attorneys — was that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were innocent. In 2014, both were exonerated by DNA evidence and, in 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted them a rare pardon of innocence.

In a new report, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation — which represented McCollum for the last two decades he spent on death row — tells the story of how two intellectually disabled teenagers were pressured into signing the false confessions that sent them to death row and how they were finally able to prove their innocence.

Henry and Leon’s case is not so much a lesson in how wrongful convictions are uncovered as it is a warning of how easily they can be missed entirely. If not for a complex and unlikely chain of events that unfolded over decades, Henry and Leon would likely have remained in prison for the rest of their lives. Henry might have been executed.

➤ Click here to read the report (pdf)

Source: The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Kristin Collins, August 31, 2017


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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