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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

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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