After spending over three decades in prison for a crime they didn't commit, a pair of North Carolina half-brothers are finally getting to taste their freedom, however painfully late it came. And on Friday, Governor Pat McCrory added some official recognition: both Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were pardoned, absolved of their 1983 convictions for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. With McCrory's pardon, they'll be eligible for some compensation — each man could receive up to $750,000 in repayment for their wrongful imprisonment.
As is so often the case with these reversals of longstanding, mistaken convictions, it was freshly examined DNA evidence that proved crucial. When both Brown and McCollum were questioned in connection to the crime, they were very young — just 15 and 19, respectively — and according to the AP, they had very low IQs, and their defense team argued they were intimidated into confessing to the grisly crimes.
But, with benefit of the new evidence, the convictions were overturned, and the duo were set free in Sept. 2014. Now, they're eligible for a compensatory payout, which amounts to $50,000 per year served, with a $750,000 cap, according to the AP. And if just $50,000 for each lost year of your life sounds a little tight, you probably won't get much argument.
As The New York Times' Jonathan Katz detailed when Brown and McCollum were first released, the man believed to be the real culprit in the murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Bule is actually already in prison for a different rape and murder, serving a life sentence. That's a fact which makes it even more surprising and frustrating that McCollum and Brown were wrongly accused and convicted — the man implicated by the new DNA evidence lived just one block away from where Bule's body was discovered.
The stakes were high for both of them, but dizzyingly higher for McCollum, who received a death sentence for the crime, while Brown got life. If you're ever curious why the death penalty appeals process is so long, costly, and drawn out, here's your case study — if McCollum had been rushed through the system before this evidence had come to light, North Carolina easily could've executed an innocent man, perhaps the grossest miscarriage of justice a state can be involved in.
That's not a purely theoretical proposition, either. Based on the rates of overturned death penalty convictions against the number of death row sentences alone, innocent people have almost surely been executed before. It's an inherent, unavoidable risk of any capital punishment system, and in this case, it's simply a relief that McCollum's innocence was proven in time.
For what it's worth, even though you can't really put a price tag on 30+ years, the money the two have coming to them sounds like it'll be a big help. According to CBS News, they were both given a trifling $45 when they were released last year, and McCollum acknowledged that he "can't do nothing to help my family," who were unable to pay their bills.