Southern Horror

How the North Carolina GOP Made a Wrongfully Convicted Man a Death Row Scapegoat

The awful tale of the mentally challenged brothers who served 30 years for a crime they did not commit gets worse: The GOP used one brother to smear a Democrat for being soft on crime.

Chuck Liddy//Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

From North Carolina comes a multi-twisted, true-life horror story, a Southern grotesque of despicable politics and outrageous injustice.

The supporting characters include a prosecutor who prided himself on being in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of people he put on death row.

There is also a convicted killer who was about to be executed for murdering a teenage girl when he refused his last meal as a protest against abortion.

And there is a woman legislator who got elected after her party smeared her opponent for being soft on crime even though his teen daughter had been raped and murdered. Her first priority upon achieving office was to introduce legislation to criminalize exposing a nipple or even an areola in public.

But the principal figures in this tale are two mentally challenged half-brothers who are being freed only this week after serving more than three decades for a heinous crime they did not commit, the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

The brothers landed on death row at the Central Prison in Raleigh with the very monster who actually committed the murder and had since been sentenced to death for another sex killing, one that occurred a month after the brothers were charged with the 11-year-old’s death.

The older brother, Henry McCollum, had come to embrace the real killer as a paternal figure. McCollum learned the truth only after nearly 30 years, as a result of the same DNA test that exonerated both brothers.

As McCollum finally walked free on Tuesday, folks in Davidson County might have remembered his face from a particularly despicable campaign leaflet the North Carolina Republican Party mailed out in 2010.

The target of the mailing was the then-majority leader of the state General Assembly, Democrat Hugh Holliman. The state GOP was desperate to unseat him in its effort to take control of the legislature. The party proceeded to show just how low a Dixie Republican can go.

“Thanks to Hugh Holliman, death row inmates could leave prison early and move in next door,” the leaflet said. “Meet your new neighbors…You’re not going to like them very much.”

Beside the mug shot of McCollum was one of a man named Wayne Laws. The leaflet announced:

“Meet Wayne Laws. He brutally MURDERED TWO PEOPLE. And get to know Henry McCollum. He RAPED AND MURDERED AN 11 YEAR OLD CHILD. Both are on Death Row today.”

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The leaflet went on:

“But thanks to ultra-liberal Hugh Holliman, they might be moving out of jail and into Your neighborhood sometime soon.”

Holliman’s supposed sin was to have voted in favor of the state’s new Racial Justice Act, which permitted condemned murderers to cite demographics in seeking to get their death sentences commuted.

But the law explicitly stated that a resulting life sentence was to be without even the possibility of parole.

The leaflet was thus a lie, though that was hardly surprising in politics.

What was remarkable was that the Republicans were directing this particular smear at someone whose 16-year-old daughter had been abducted, raped, and murdered by an intruder when she was home from school with the flu.

The police had made an arrest in that 1985 murder, but just before the trial was set to begin the following year, the suspect proved not to be the killer after all. Another man, named Ricky Lee Sanderson, stepped forward and confessed.

Sanderson resided on death row for a decade before becoming one of 42 men McCollum would watch being marched out for execution. The supposed ultra-liberal Holliman was among the witnesses as Sanderson was strapped into a wooden chair clad only in white boxer shorts, fitted with a leather mask, and administered a lethal dose of poison gas. Sanderson had refused his last meal, saying the aborted unborn are denied their first one, but not seeming to consider that being a sex murderer undercut his moral stance.

To his great credit, Holliman had made no mention of his daughter’s murder during the campaign. He felt compelled to issue a statement after seeing the leaflet.

“I have never exploited the death of my daughter and the execution of her murderer for political gain, but I can’t stand here and let the state Republican Party in Raleigh say I am soft on crime,” Holliman said. “The mail piece that they put out was a new low in political campaigns. They owe an apology to my family for the pain they have caused with their careless disregard for the truth.”

A Republican official did telephone Holliman to offer a private apology. But the official declined Holliman’s request that the GOP mail out a retraction to those who had received the leaflet.

“The outrage should be that the Democrats voted for this bill in the first place,” a Republican spokesman said.

The smear was no doubt a factor in Holliman’s defeat. The victor, Rayne Brown, went on to make a name for herself by proposing legislation to amend the definition of private parts to include “the nipple or any portion of the areola of the human female breast” and criminalize going topless in public as indecent exposure.

Meanwhile, right around the time the Republicans sent out the mailer, investigators for the state Innocence Inquiry Commission and then lawyers from the nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation took up the case of McCollum and his younger brother, Leon Brown.

The two had spent their earlier years living with their grandmother in Jersey City, N.J., before moving to the little town of Red Springs in southern North Carolina. McCollum was 19, and his IQ tested around 60. Brown was 15, and his IQ tested under 50.

When 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was found naked, raped, and murdered in a soybean field, another local girl told police they should investigate the two newly arrived outsiders.

Police picked up McCollum at home in the evening, and after a while his mother went with Brown to the station to see why he had not returned.

The questioning of one brother continued as the questioning of the other began. The police eventually obtained two written confessions that the brothers would describe as coerced.

At the trial, McCollum took the stand and faced Joe Freeman Britt, described by the Guinness Book of Records and 60 Minutes as the “Deadliest D.A.” The Raleigh News & Observer has reported that McCollum recanted his confession a total of 266 times during the cross-examination.

“Didn’t that touch your soul at all when that little girl was down on the ground hollering?” Britt asked at one point.

“It didn’t touch my soul because I didn’t kill nobody,” McCollum said.

“It doesn’t touch your soul now, does it?” Britt asked.

“Because I ain’t killed nobody,” McCollum said.

McCollum added, “I want to tell you something, Joe Freeman, God got your judgment right in hell waiting for you.”

The temporal judgment regarding the bothers was guilty, and both were sentenced to death. Brown became the youngest person on death row, but his sentence was subsequently reduced to life.

McCollum remained on death row along with Roscoe Artis, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl a month after the killing for which the brothers had been convicted. Artis just happened to live beside the soybean field where the 11-year-old was found. He had been represented by the same lawyer who represented McCollum at trial. He also had been prosecuted by Britt, the Deadly D.A.

Yet neither brother seems to have suspected what should have been so apparent to the police and the prosecutor. McCollum remained extremely close to Artis after Brown’s sentence was commuted and the younger brother was moved off death row.

“He was like a father to me,” McCollum was later quoted as saying of the psycho killer who may have gotten some sick power rush out of his relationship with these innocent and unsuspecting brothers behind bars for a horror he committed.

In 2010, another inmate urged Brown to contact the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which had been established by the state to investigate claims of wrongful convictions.

The commission reinvestigated the case, noting that scrapes on the 11-year-old’s back indicated that she had been dragged into the field after being killed. Some bloody sticks had been found nearby, along with beer cans and a Newport cigarette butt. One of the cans had the 11-year-old’s fingerprint. Another can had a fingerprint that belonged neither to her nor the brothers.

As the News & Observer has reported, the commission investigators now discovered something that the prosecution had failed to reveal to the defense in the brothers’ case. The police had asked the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation to compare the unidentified print on the can with those on file for Artis. The SBI failed to follow through, but the request meant that the prosecution had considered Artis a person of interest before the brothers went on trial.

The prosecution likely was aware that Artis had previously been convicted of multiple attempted rapes and that he was wanted for a 1980 sex murder. The victim in that case had been battered bloody with a stick that was used to cram her panties down her throat, asphyxiating her in the same way as was the 11-year-old.

The commission investigators now tested the cigarette butt. The recovered DNA matched neither brother. It belonged to Artis.

Since then, another death row inmate has reported that Artis repeatedly confessed to him over the decades that he had killed the 11-year-old but also repeatedly refused to step forward. Artis himself has finally told a commission member that the brothers are innocent.

“If the police would have done their job, then Leon and Henry wouldn’t be in prison,” Artis said, by the commission member’s account.

And Artis would have been arrested before he could kill the 16-year-old he murdered a month after the death of the 11-year-old.

More than three decades later, McCollum, now 50, and Brown, now 46, are free.

And anyone who recognizes McCollum from that shameful flier of 2010 can be assured that you could not ask for a better neighbor, someone who knows the full value of truth and justice.