On September 24th 1983, a crime in Red Springs, NC put the town on edge and set the pace for a landmark case that would be talked about more than thirty years later. Sabrina Buie was an 11-year-old girl, seen playing a pinball game near soybean fields and later found dead. She was found in those same soybean fields, raped and suffocated with her own underwear.
While searching for suspects who might have committed this crime, law enforcement picked up two half-siblings by the names of Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown. McCollum was interrogated harshly for five hours, with his mother begging to see him from the hallway, and under pressure, McCollum fabricated a story that he hoped would sate the police officers enough to let him go home.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Already achieving success with McCollum signing a confession, officers coerced Brown by informing him of what his half-brother had done, successfully compelling Brown to sign a confession of his own. This would start the battle of innocence that would draw out for more than thirty years.
On October 8, 1984, McCollum was tried for the first-degree murder and first degree rape of Sabrina Buie. The prosecution’s case relied heavily on McCollum and Brown’s confessions, which they claimed were coerced from them unlawfully. Additionally, L.P. Sinclair testified that McCollum confessed to wanting to have sex with Buie. On October 25, 1984, McCollum was found guilty of both charges and sentenced to death.
There seems to be many problems from the conception of this case. McCollum has a low IQ and was not mentally fit to be interrogated in an aggressive manner for more than five hours without any adult representation. Furthermore, the majority of the evidence that the prosecution used against McCollum was the coerced confessions rather than DNA evidence. L.P. Sinclair testified against McCollum, but when he was later cross-examined, claimed that he was interrogated by police three times prior and never implicated McCollum. At the scene of the crime, fingerprints were taken to see if any match with McCollum. They did not. All of this points to a system that wanted someone to take the blame for this rape and murder. McCollum happened to be the person of choice.
In 1988, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered that McCollum and Brown be tried again because the jury had not been informed to recognize their guilt or innocence separately. In 1991, McCollum was tried and convicted of both offenses and for the second time, sentenced to death.
Even after the second trial, McCollum continuously challenged his conviction. McCollum learned that DNA tests had not been performed on some of the physical evidence in the soybean field. Upon his request, a cigarette butt was sent in for DNA testing and did not match to his DNA. The DNA profile matched Roscoe Artis, a repeated felon.
Roscoe Artis had committed crimes similar to the one McCollum was serving time for. He has had multiple stints in hail and confessed to other inmate that McCollum and Brown were innocent. He even knew facts about the victim’s condition such as the color of her underwear the way she was killed.
Due to the mounting evidence proving McCollum’s innocence, the Death Penalty Litigation Center filed a motion for their charges to be dismissed and for them to be released, which was granted. On September 2, 2014, he was released and all charges against him were dropped. Governor Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, pardoned McCollum and they found their records wiped clean. After serving about thirty-one years in prison, McCollum is now free.
The colossal question is, “Why do people falsely confess?” While there are many answers, the main ones are coercion, psychological problems, duress, and lack of intelligence. A sizable chunk of those convicted due to false confessions were coerced into confessing. Those who pressed victims were either law enforcement or some other domineering figure who was persuasive or deceitful enough to get the necessary words out of an unsuspecting victim. Those who confessed were coerced by pretense such as no time in jail, getting to leave the precinct or a plea deal.
Psychological issues alter an individual’s thinking and makes them say things that are untrue, which may get them into harmful situations such as the situation McCollum found himself in. Most of the time, one cannot fight the effects of congenital psychological issues, allowing juries and judges alike to see that people in these special circumstances did not commit a crime and, therefore, should not be sent to jail. While interrogating individuals suspected of doing a crime, police hold them for long periods of time in stressful conditions.
It is under these conditions that many confess, just to get out of the nerve-wracking environment that made them confess in the first place. Finally, a lack of intelligence is what causes people to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit. Those who lack basic knowledge of the rights they do and do not have, along with those who lack the intelligence to decipher what is going on, can be found from the hundreds of people that were falsely convicted.
For example, many of those who falsely confess lack the knowledge that police can lie anyhow they would like in order to extract a confession within the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s shield against self-incrimination. Henry Lee McCollum is just one of many who falsely confessed due multitude of reasons, which include lack of intelligence that results from an IQ in the 60s, and duress.
Scholarship article submitted by Temitayo Adanlawo (Howard University)