RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A jury in a North Carolina federal civil rights case has awarded $75 million to two Black, intellectually disabled half brothers who spent decades behind bars after being wrongfully convicted in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
The eight-person jury on Friday decided Henry McCollum and Leon Brown should received $31 million each in compensatory damages, $1 million for every year spent in prison, The News & Observer reported. The jury also awarded them $13 million in punitive damages.
“The first jury to hear all of the evidence — including the wrongly suppressed evidence — found Henry and Leon to be innocent, found them to have been demonstrably and excruciatingly wronged, and has done what the law can do to make it right at this late date,” Raleigh attorney Elliot Abrams said after the trial.
Abrams was part of the brothers’ legal team, which issued a statement saying the decades-long wait “for recognition of the grave injustice” inflicted on the two by law enforcement was over. It added that “a jury … has finally given Henry and Leon the ability to close this horrific chapter of their lives. They look forward to a brighter future surrounded by friends, family, and loved ones.”
McCollum and Brown have pursued the civil case against law enforcement members since 2015, arguing that their civil rights were violated during the interrogations that led to their convictions.
The two were released from prison in 2014 after DNA evidence that pointed to a convicted murderer exonerated them. They were teenagers when they were accused of the crime, which happened in Red Springs in Robeson County.
Attorneys for the men have said they were scared teenagers who had low IQs when they were questioned by police and coerced into confessing. McCollum was then 19, and Brown was 15. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.
McCollum spent most of his 31 years in prison on death row, becoming North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate. Brown — who the newspaper reported suffers from mental health conditions related to his time in prison and requires full-time care — had his sentence later changed to life in prison.
On Friday, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, one of the defendants, settled its part of the case for $9 million. The town of Red Springs, originally named in the civil suit, settled in 2017 for $1 million.
Friday’s judgement came against former SBI agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead, who were part of the original investigation.
Scott MacLatchie, the lead defense attorney for the SBI agents, attempted during his closing argument to cast doubt on the brothers’ innocence, the newspaper reported, despite the fact that they had received full pardons of innocence.
“I’ve got my freedom,” McCollum said. “There’s still a lot of innocent people in prison today. And they don’t deserve to be there.”