A North Carolina jury has awarded $75 million in compensatory damages to two Black brothers who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death over the 1983 rape and killing of an 11-year-old girl.
According to The News & Observer, intellectually disabled half brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown had always maintained their innocence, claiming they were coerced to append their signatures to confessions they could not interpret. The two spent almost 31 years in prison before they were eventually exonerated in 2014.
The eight-person jury voted Friday to award $31 million to each of the brothers – that is $1 million for every year they spent locked up behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Besides that, they were also awarded $13 million in punitive damages. The jury’s decision also came after the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office – one of the defendants in the suit – agreed to a $9 million settlement with the brothers. That means the siblings could receive $84 million in total.
“I thank God,” an emotional McCollum said in reaction to the jury’s decision.
McCollum and Brown’s 2014 exoneration came after DNA evidence linked a convicted murderer to the crime scene. Following their exoneration, the state moved to grant the brothers full pardons of innocence the following year, The News & Observer reported. That cleared the path for them to move ahead with the federal civil rights lawsuit. The defendants in the suit include North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agents who were behind the 1983 case and the brothers’ subsequent conviction.
“The first jury to hear all of the evidence — including the wrongly suppressed evidence — found Henry and Leon to be innocent, found them to have been demonstrably and excruciatingly wronged, and has done what the law can do to make it right at this late date,” Elliot Abrams, one of the brothers’ attorneys, said following the trial.
Throughout the trial, attorneys for the deputies and SBI agents named in the suit had tried to have the case dropped based on a number of arguments but were unsuccessful. During his closing argument, Scott MacLatchie, the attorney for the SBI agents, reportedly told the court his clients did nothing wrong with regards to their handling of the case. And though he also appeared to raise eyebrows over the brothers’ innocence despite their exoneration, the jury still moved to rule in McCollum and Brown’s favor.
“For more than 37 years, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown have waited for recognition of the grave injustice that law enforcement inflicted upon them,” attorneys for the brothers said in a statement after the trial, according to The News & Observer. “Today, a jury did just that, and have finally given Henry and Leon the ability to close this horrific chapter in their lives.”
Brown was 16 while McCollum was 20 when they became death row inmates. Brown’s conviction at the time made him the state’s youngest person to be sentenced to death while McCollum also later became North Carolina’s longest-serving person on death row. During the closing argument, Des Hogan, one of the attorneys representing the brothers, detailed the trauma they endured during their wrongful incarceration.
Hogan revealed McCollum almost committed suicide in 1986 after the execution of a fellow death row inmate. After Brown’s sentence was reduced to life, Hogan told the court his client was “victimized in unspeakable ways.”
Though McCollum welcomed the jury’s decision, he lamented on other wrongfully incarcerated inmates who also deserve to have their cases reviewed. “I’ve got my freedom,” he said. “There’s still a lot of innocent people in prison today. And they don’t deserve to be there.”