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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The trouble with finality

Seth Rose is a senior political science major from Durham.

Seth Rose is a senior political science major from Durham.

Twenty years ago, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun offered a statement rarely heard from a figure of his stature. He passionately renounced the death penalty, proclaiming that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”

Blackmun argued that decisions involving the death penalty were too subjective and prone to human error to be consistently administered constitutionally. His appeal, shocking in an era of overwhelming public support for capital punishment, did not go uncontested.

Justice Antonin Scalia offered a scathing rebuttal to his colleague, whom he accused of attempting to “thrust a minority’s views upon the people.” Scalia argued the need for the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for the most heinous of crimes. He wrote about two cases before the Supreme Court at the time, which he believed made death by lethal injection look “enviable.” One of those cases, notably, concerned the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, committed in Red Springs, North Carolina.

Henry McCollum was 20 when he was sentenced to death for committing the crime Scalia described. Today, he will walk into a courtroom in Lumberton and almost certainly receive exoneration — a legal declaration of innocence — after spending 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

In 1983, McCollum and his younger brother Leon Brown traveled from New Jersey to Robeson County to spend time with their grandmother. Just a week after the brothers’ arrival, police discovered Buie’s mangled body in a soybean field. Local police arrested McCollum and Brown based on a rumor that McCollum had escaped down south for crimes he committed in New Jersey.

The source of that rumor was never identified. Brown and McCollum, both of whom have IQs below 70, were coerced into confessing to the crime by the police. Their eventual convictions, Brown for rape and McCollum for rape and first-degree murder, were almost entirely driven by their confessions.

North Carolina dangerously considers a confession to be sufficient evidence to sentence a person to death. The rate of error for confessions is far too high for this to be the case. According to a University of Virginia report released Aug. 21, nearly 20 percent of defendants who have been exonerated by DNA evidence had falsely confessed to the crime.

DNA on a cigarette butt found at the crime scene suggests the real killer might be Roscoe Artis, who was convicted of a similar crime in Red Springs just one month later. Until this latest piece of evidence was revealed, the connection between Artis and Buie’s murder had not been made.

Justice Scalia believed the Red Springs murder proved the necessity of the death penalty. If this was the strongest case a Supreme Court justice could make for the continuation of the death penalty, McCollum’s innocence is an even stronger one for why we are incapable of justly administering a punishment of such finality.

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