In 1983, a North Carolina sheriff's detective knocked on Henry McCollum's home and invited the 19-year-old to the police department for questioning. An hour and a half later, his brother, Leon Brown, and their mother went to the station to see what was taking so long. Soon, says the Raleigh News & Observer, agents had a five-page murder confession from McCollum detailing how he and three other teenagers had gang-raped an 11-year-old girl in a bean field and jammed her panties down her throat with a stick. By dawn, agents had a confession from Brown, 15. Police wrote the confessions in longhand; Brown and McCollum signed each page. Those two confessions have kept them locked up for nearly 31 years.
Both men are mentally disabled; McCollum with an IQ in the 60s, Brown’s as low as 49. The men say they were bullied and tricked into confessing. Now, the state Innocence Inquiry Commission has unearthed DNA evidence showing the killer was a sexual predator with a lengthy criminal history. The brothers are scheduled to appear today in court, where defense lawyers will ask a judge to free them both. District Attorney Johnson Britt is not opposed. “The whole case rests on the confessions,” Britt said, “and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.” Despite a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years, the case raises many questions: How common are false confessions? How many inmates have boxes of evidence hidden from them for decades? How does the justice system treat the mentally disabled? Were the brothers put on death row because of police and prosecutorial tunnel vision, or something worse? How many innocent inmates languish in the state's penal system?