Henry McCollum and Leon Brown spent nearly 31 years in prison for a brutal crime they did not commit, one they were convicted of on the basis of confessions that they insisted, for decades, had been coerced.
In a federal courtroom in Raleigh late Friday afternoon, after nearly five hours of deliberation, a jury awarded the brothers a sense of long-awaited justice.
An eight-person jury awarded McCollum and Brown $31 million each in compensatory damages — $1 million for each of the years they spent in prison after they were wrongfully convicted, twice, of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Red Springs.
McCollum and Brown, intellectually-disabled half brothers, were charged after they signed confessions they insisted they didn’t understand.
The combined $62 million award in compensatory damages was part of an $84 million day for the brothers. The jury also awarded them $13 million in punitive damages after the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, one of the defendants named in the civil suit, settled its part of the case earlier on Friday for $9 million.
“I thank God,” McCollum said outside the courtroom, his eyes red from crying.
He and Brown had spent the previous moments embracing the team of attorneys who for years had worked toward this day.
A Robeson County judge in 2014 overturned McCollum and Brown’s convictions after the emergence of DNA evidence that placed another man, a convicted murderer named Roscoe Artis, at the scene of the crime. The next year, in 2015, the brothers received full pardons of innocence from the state.
Since then, McCollum and Brown, both Black, had pursued a federal civil rights against law enforcement members behind their wrongful convictions. The judgment on Friday came against former SBI agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead.
The SBI had been the last remaining law enforcement entity not to settle in the case, after the Red Springs Police Department settled in 2017, and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office settled on Friday before closing arguments began.
The brothers’ lawyers contended that law enforcement officers violated McCollum and Brown’s civil rights in several ways: that they coerced the brothers’ confessions; that they suppressed and fabricated evidence; that they investigated the crime in bad faith, ignoring evidence that would have pointed to another suspect; and that they violated McCollum and Brown’s due process rights.
“Coerced confessions can never be the basis for probable cause,” Des Hogan, who delivered the plaintiffs’ closing argument, told the jury on Friday.
The defense for the SBI agents, meanwhile, attempted to cast doubt on the brothers’ innocence, and downplayed the agents’ involvement in the investigation that led to the brothers’ convictions.
The jury began deliberating at around 1 p.m. Friday.
By 6, it had found the SBI agents liable for violating the brothers’ civil rights, and the jury awarded a $75 million judgment that members of McCollum and Brown’s legal team believed to be the largest wrongful conviction judgment in North Carolina history.