Judge angrily questions defense as civil trial starts for brothers seeking justice

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A federal judge scolded an attorney representing two agents from the State Bureau of Investigation on Monday evening, asking who gave him permission to give the state of North Carolina a “black eye.”

The fiery exchange took place in the federal civil trial for Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, brothers who spent more than three decades in prison for a brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. DNA evidence tested by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2014 pointed to another man: a serial rapist who lived not 40 feet from where the girl’s body was discovered in 1983.

McCollum and Brown, both of whom suffer severely from cognitive limitations, seek millions in compensation from two former SBI agents and two former detectives with the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. Both McCollum and Brown had been on death row.

U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle’s sharp questions followed a heated afternoon of opening arguments and then testimony from former Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt.

Boyle appeared to bristle at a defense strategy that seemed to argue that McCollum and Brown are, in fact, guilty of rape and murder.

Henry McCollum, 50, spends time outdoors with his sister, Geraldine Brown, 49, rear, in Fayetteville, N.C. “I’m happy to be out here breathing the cool air,” he says. He and his brother Leon Brown, 47, not seen, both served 31 years for a rape and murder of a young girl which they did not commit. They were freed in September 2014. Both are happy to out of prison, but find that it’s been a hard adjustment on the outside. They have no income and no car, which makes it difficult to find work and earn money.
Henry McCollum, 50, spends time outdoors with his sister, Geraldine Brown, 49, rear, in Fayetteville, N.C. “I’m happy to be out here breathing the cool air,” he says. He and his brother Leon Brown, 47, not seen, both served 31 years for a rape and murder of a young girl which they did not commit. They were freed in September 2014. Both are happy to out of prison, but find that it’s been a hard adjustment on the outside. They have no income and no car, which makes it difficult to find work and earn money.

‘I’m mystified’

On Monday evening, after the jury filed out of the courtroom, Boyle demanded answers from the lawyers. He asked Scott MacLatchie, an attorney representing the two former SBI agents, who was directing his strategy. Boyle wanted to know whether state Attorney General Josh Stein had consulted and asked where Stein’s public relations team was.

MacLatchie argued that he simply represented SBI agent Leroy Allen, now retired, and SBI agent Kenneth Snead, who died in 2019.

Laura Brewer, the communications director for Stein’s office, said Tuesday that it is not involved in the trial.

“As you know, over a year ago, Attorney General Stein withdrew our office from the handling of this case and private attorneys are representing McCollum and Brown,” Brewer said. “Those attorneys do not speak for our office or have any affiliation with our office. I can tell you that the only involvement our office has had in this case since we withdrew from the litigation is in an effort to facilitate getting it settled.”

Desmond Hogan, a lawyer representing McCollum and Brown, told the judge that he, too, was confused by defense’s strategy. He told Boyle that the defense team brought about 25 lawyers to a mediation aimed at settling the case out of court before the trial.

Hogan told the judge: “I’m mystified.”

On Tuesday, MacLatchie and Hogan declined to comment further about the conversation with Boyle.

Microphones are typically turned off during conversations with judges at the bench. But Monday’s conversation was instead broadcast through the courtroom to an audience of about two dozen.

Boyle talked to the all-white jury Tuesday morning about the wrongful conviction of the brothers, both of whom are Black. Boyle explained that former Gov. Pat McCrory pardoned the brothers in 2015, an act that “obliterates or wipes out the conviction.”

Leon Brown, 47, spends much of his time indoors praying and meditating at the home he shares with sister, Geraldine Brown, 49, and brother Henry McCollum, 50, in Fayetteville, N.C. “I try to think about my future. I can’t change the past. I try not to think about the past. I can’t erase things when I was young. I’m starting out now as an adult,” he says. The two brothers served 31 years for a rape and murder of a young girl which they did not commit, were freed in September 2014. Both are happy to out of prison, but find that it’s been a hard adjustment on the outside. They have no income and no car, which makes it difficult to find work and earn money.
Leon Brown, 47, spends much of his time indoors praying and meditating at the home he shares with sister, Geraldine Brown, 49, and brother Henry McCollum, 50, in Fayetteville, N.C. “I try to think about my future. I can’t change the past. I try not to think about the past. I can’t erase things when I was young. I’m starting out now as an adult,” he says. The two brothers served 31 years for a rape and murder of a young girl which they did not commit, were freed in September 2014. Both are happy to out of prison, but find that it’s been a hard adjustment on the outside. They have no income and no car, which makes it difficult to find work and earn money.

Intense interrogation techniques

The trial’s first witness Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning was Johnson Britt, who served as Robeson County’s district attorney from 1994 through his retirement in 2019. He discussed in detail the interrogation techniques he thinks were used on Brown and McCollum, 15 and 19 at the time.

Britt described officers’ techniques: playing “good cop, bad cop,” “cussing and swearing” and slamming the table. The information officers share with the suspects in such an intense interrogation is “known, unknown or made up,” Britt testified.

At the time of their arrests, McCollum’s IQ hoovered in the 50s. His brother Brown has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, the N&O has reported.

Investigators for the SBI and Robeson Sheriff’s Department questioned Brown, 15 at the time, without the consent of his mother, who was just outside the police department, Hogan told the jury Monday.

At the time, the SBI policy manual said that agents should secure the permission of a guardian before questioning a minor who is a suspect in a crime, Hogan said in court Monday.

But MacClatchie defended the officers’ decision to question Brown. He told jurors that in 1983 state law did not require consent from guardians to question juveniles ages 14 to 17.

On Tuesday, Brown sat not five feet from the jury. A group home worker hired to supervise him sat to his left.

McCollum sat on a bench behind them. An embroidered message stretched across the back of his shirt: “Sleep with one eye open.”

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