Innocent man on United States death row for thirty years, free at last


Henry Lee McCollum wiped tears at a hearing Tuesday in Lumberton, N.C., where a judge declared him and his half brother Leon Brown innocent and ordered them both released from prison. Photo credit Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer

From the New York Times in the USA:

DNA Evidence Clears Two Men in 1983 Murder

By JONATHAN M. KATZ and ERIK ECKHOLM

SEPT. 2, 2014

LUMBERTON, N.C. — Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released Tuesday by a judge here.

The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.

The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential harm from false, coerced confessions and of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.

As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a Superior Court judge in Robeson County, Douglas B. Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and Mr. McCollum’s death sentence and ordering their release. The courtroom erupted into a standing ovation.

“We waited all these long years for this,” said James McCollum, the father of the man released from death row. “Thank you, Jesus,” he repeated.

The exoneration ends decades of legal and political battles over a case that became notorious in North Carolina and received nationwide discussion, vividly reflecting the country’s fractured views of the death penalty.

The two young defendants were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, the 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting district attorney who was later profiled by “60 Minutes” as the country’s “deadliest D.A.” because he sought the death penalty so often.

For death penalty supporters, the horrifying facts of the girl’s rape and murder only emphasized the justice of applying the ultimate penalty. As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr. McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers that accused a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.

In 1994, when the United States Supreme Court turned down a request to review the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described Mr. McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection. But Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissent, noted that Mr. McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that “this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.”

The exoneration based on DNA evidence was another example of the way tainted convictions have unraveled in recent years because of new technology and legal defense efforts like those of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit legal group in North Carolina that took up the case.

In the courtroom here on Tuesday, the current district attorney, Johnson Britt (no relation to the original prosecutor), citing his obligation to “seek justice,” not simply gain convictions, said he would not try to prosecute the men again because the state “does not have a case.”

Mr. McCollum was 19 and Mr. Brown was 15 when they were picked up by the police in Red Springs, a town of fewer than 4,000 people in the southern part of the state, on the night of Sept. 28, 1983. The officers were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie, 11, who had been raped and suffocated with her underwear crammed down her throat, her body left in a soybean field.

No physical evidence tied Mr. McCollum or Mr. Brown, both African-American, as was the victim, to the crime. But a local teenager cast suspicion on Mr. McCollum, who with his half brother had recently moved from New Jersey and was considered an outsider.

After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Mr. McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.

“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” Mr. McCollum said in a recent videotaped interview with The News & Observer. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”

This video is about that interview.

After he signed a statement written in longhand by investigators, he asked, “Can I go home now?” according to an account by his defense lawyers.

Before the night was done, Mr. Brown, after being told that his half brother had confessed and facing similar threats that he could be executed if he did not cooperate, also signed a confession. Both men subsequently recanted at trial, saying their confessions had been coerced. The other two men mentioned in Mr. McCollum’s confession were never prosecuted.

Both defendants initially received death sentences for murder. After new trials were ordered by the State Supreme Court, Mr. McCollum was again sentenced to death, while Mr. Brown was convicted only of rape, and his sentence was reduced to life. (In later years, the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for minors and the execution of the mentally disabled.)

Lawyers from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, working with private law firms, began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found near sticks used in the murder.

Recent DNA testing by an independent state agency, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, of evidence gathered in the initial investigation found a match for the DNA on the cigarette butt — not to either of the imprisoned men, but to Roscoe Artis, who lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found and who had a history of convictions for sexual assault.

Only weeks after the murder, in fact, Mr. Artis confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs. Mr. Artis received a death sentence, later reduced to life, for that crime and remains in prison. Officials never explained why, despite the remarkable similarities in the crimes, they kept their focus on Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown even as the men proclaimed their innocence.

The only witness at the hearing Tuesday was Sharon Stellato of the innocence inquiry commission, who under questioning from defense lawyers described the lack of evidence tying the two men to the crime as well as the DNA findings implicating Mr. Artis. The district attorney said he had no evidence to the contrary.

Joe Freeman Britt, the original prosecutor, told The News & Observer last week that he still believed the men were guilty.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown returned to prison to file the paperwork for their release, which to the frustration of defense lawyers and the men’s relatives was delayed, apparently until Wednesday.

As exoneration appeared likely, Mr. McCollum recently reflected on his fate.

“I have never stopped believing that one day I’d be able to walk out that door,” he said in the videotaped interview with The News & Observer.

“A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything,” he said. “I never got a chance to realize those dreams.

“Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”

Correction: September 2, 2014

An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the Supreme Court justice who noted that Henry Lee McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old. It was Justice Harry A. Blackmun, not Hugo.

See also here.

New York’s Rikers Island prisoners die from beatings


This video from the USA is called Questioning solitary confinement for teens at Rikers Island.

By Philip Guelpa in the USA:

New reports of inmate deaths from beatings at New York’s Rikers Island prison

1 September 2014

Two recently revealed incidents at the Rikers Island prison in New York City confirm that the horrific conditions, already documented in a number of previous reports, at the city’s largest prison are the result of systematic, institutionalized brutality, not isolated aberrations.

In one incident, documents obtained by the Associated Press reveal that inmate Angel Ramirez, 50 years old, was beaten to death by prison guards using night sticks (police batons) in July of 2011. Ramirez was reportedly suffering hallucinations during withdrawal from alcohol and heroin, and had earlier been denied his prescribed medication. In this impaired state, he attempted to hit an officer, but missed. Several officers then took him out of view of surveillance cameras and inflicted a severe beating, resulting in Ramirez’s death.

The news account states, based on information provided by the family’s lawyer, that Ramirez “died of numerous blunt-impact injuries that included a ruptured spleen, shattered ribs and a stomach filled with blood.” This contradicts the statements of the officers, who were interviewed eight months later, that the inmate was struck only once, and only in self-defense.

So far, three inmate deaths due to beatings by guards are reported to have taken place over the last five years, without a single conviction of the officers involved. Given the difficulty in obtaining information on these cases, the actual number of such incidents is likely to be much higher. And that does not include other forms of abuse, in some cases leading to death, which have also come to light in recent years.

One recent case of death by neglect that has come to light is that of 19-year old Andy Henriquez. He died at Rikers in April 2013 after being locked in solitary confinement for days without necessary medical assistance. Henriquez died of a ruptured aorta after complaining of chest pains and breathing difficulties over a prolonged period. His mother is suing the city for “wrongful death.”

Last August another inmate, Carlos Mercado, 46, was allowed to go into diabetic coma and eventually died from lack of treatment while incarcerated at Rikers. He was denied assistance despite pleas from him and fellow inmates as his condition worsened. Again, the city is being sued for wrongful death.

In yet another case, Jerome Murdough was found dead in a 100-degree cell on Feb. 15. The family plans to sue the city for $25 million,

Corizon Health, the private company hired by the city to provide medical services to inmates at Rikers, has been sued over two dozen times since 2002 for incidents at the prison. Corizon had revenue of $1.2 billion last year. This profit-making business takes in tens of millions of dollars annually from the city while health care for inmates remains criminally inadequate.

The pervasive use of violence and abuse against inmates by authorities, without any significant consequences for the perpetrators, was further documented by a federal study of the juvenile section of the prison that was issued earlier this month (see: Federal report exposes “culture of violence” in New York City’s Rikers Island prison). It found that adolescent inmates are subjected to a “systematic culture of violence.” Many of the inmates are placed in solitary confinement for up to 60 days. The study demonstrated that extremely loose supervision, systematic falsification of incident reports, and long drawn out investigations have created an environment in which such behavior can be carried out with impunity. This is only the latest in a long series of investigations and news accounts documenting conditions at Rikers, stretching back at least a decade.

This city is in full damage control mode. The new Department of Correction Commissioner, Joe Ponte, appointed earlier this year by Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio, has made a series of statements intended to give the impression that abuses will be addressed. However, only cosmetic changes have been implemented. Last week, the de Blasio administration enacted new legislation intended to increase reporting of the use of solitary confinement, a practice that is documented to increase the rate of suicide and self-abuse by inmates. The law does nothing to actually curtail the practice or any of the associated brutality perpetrated by staff.

In a sign of growing crisis, the chief investigator at Rikers, Deputy Commissioner Florence Finkle, resigned her position last week as the revelations of inmate abuse and neglect mounted. Ms. Finkle is likely playing the role of a “sacrificial lamb” whose departure is an attempt to defuse the growing scandal.

Only last May, de Blasio’s Corrections Commissioner Ponte promoted two senior Rikers administrators to higher positions in the department.

The regime of abuse and brutality at Rikers, a virtual concentration camp on an island in the East River, as well as elsewhere in the prison system, is not the result of a few “bad apples,” as claimed by the city, but part of a system-wide, institutionalized policy which creates inhuman conditions for both inmates and staff, and is protected and condoned at the highest levels.

The horrific treatment of inmates at Rikers is made even more egregious by the fact that it is technically a jail, since it primarily holds individuals awaiting trial, rather than convicted prisoners. Legally, therefore, these inmates should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Instead, those incarcerated are subjected to unrestrained brutality and some are, in effect, sentenced to death before they are even tried.

In the few cases in which legal prosecution of inmate deaths is pursued, the city has pursued the practice of making a monetary settlement to the family of the deceased, sometimes for millions of dollars, thus effectively burying the crime and allowing the perpetrator to go free. In all three known cases of inmate deaths due to beatings by guards at Rikers over the last five years, the lack of convictions came despite the fact that the city’s medical examiner had ruled the deaths to be homicides. These settlements represent what amounts to the “cost of doing business” for the city, allowing it to carry on with systematic brutality and legally condoned murder. Those few guards who have been convicted in non-lethal cases of abuse received little more than a slap on the wrist.

The use of extreme force by police agencies against the working class, whether in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri or in the prison system, expresses the deep-seated fear of the ruling class of growing social unrest, which leads it to respond with ever-increasing violence.

Lawsuit exposes conditions at New Mexico immigrant detention center: here.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed two lawsuits this week claiming that prison inmates in the US state of Mississippi were being indefinitely detained and others were kept in conditions “tantamount to torture”: here.

Assata Shakur’s autobiography, new book


This video is called Eyes Of The Rainbow – a documentary film with Assata Shakur.

By Carlos Martinez:

Inspiring account of a black activists struggle

Monday 1st August 2014

Assata: An Autobiograhy

by Assata Shakur

(Zed Books, £8.99)

ASSATA SHAKUR remains an essential text for understanding both the prison-industrial complex and the state of race relations in the US, as well as providing a profound insight into the successes and failures of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Born in 1947, Shakur — then Joanne Deborah Byron — grew up between North Carolina and New York, experiencing the intense racism that prevailed, and still prevails, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

As a black, working-class woman she became acutely aware of the special oppression she and others like her faced. When a college student, she came across activists — especially from newly liberated Africa –— who challenged her anti-communist prejudices and her internalised stereotypes.

They encouraged her to get involved in the struggle for black power and against capitalism and imperialism. This led to her membership of the Black Panther Party and, later, the Black Liberation Army.

The larger part of the book is devoted to documenting Shakur’s experiences with the US “justice” system in courts and prisons between her arrest in 1971 and her escape eight years later.

Few readers would fail to be shocked at the extent to which this human being, whose real “crime” in the eyes of the state was to be a loud campaigner for justice and equality, was tortured and abused in prison — often at the hands of openly fascistic prison officers.

Her account also serves as a crucial reminder that there remain many political prisoners in the US, languishing behind bars for decades on trumped-up charges and that international pressure must be maintained and intensified until Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, Albert Woodfox and all political prisoners are freed.

As the book demonstrates, it’s a fight that must be maintained against a phenomenally unjust prison system which disproportionately targets poor and non-white people.

This is not restricted to the US — a recent study showed that black people in Britain are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned.

Shakur’s profound and thought-provoking reflections on the decline of the black power movement deserve to be studied and discussed, as they could help illuminate a path for the current generation of organisers and activists.

Apart from the FBI’s large-scale covert assault on the Panthers and others, she focuses too on subjective elements —adventurism, sectarianism, amateurishness, the failure to consistently raise levels of political consciousness and alienation from the masses — which hampered the movement.

Shakur’s continuing relevance is not lost on the FBI. Last year it added her to its list of “most wanted terrorists” and she is the first woman to enjoy this honour — good to see US imperialism doing its bit for gender equality.

Thankfully, she is safely in exile in Cuba, a country she describes as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques (palisades) that has ever existed on the face of this planet.”

Essential reading.

See also here.

Boys’ mass grave at Florida prison discovered


This video from Florida in the USA says about itself:

Black & White Boys At Dozier Reform School ‘Worst Nightmare’

10 July 2013

An anthropological investigation into abuse and death at the now closed Arthur G. Dozier Reform School for Boys found a record of 98 students died between 1914 and 1973-19 more than what a state probe previously uncovered. Several men who were boys at Dozier Reform School speak out about the abuse they experienced as students at Dozier.

By Jake Dean in the USA:

Fifty-five bodies found at Florida’s former reform school

5 February 2014

An excavation in the makeshift graveyard at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida last week uncovered 55 bodies in unmarked graves. These grisly findings are in addition to several other bodies found on the grounds of the campus, once housing 1,400, by an initial investigation carried out in 2009 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

The excavation efforts are led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, an associate professor of forensic anthropology at the University of South Florida, and involve 50 other researchers from nine different agencies in attempting to locate the missing bodies that have been buried there, and to determine the cause of their deaths.

During a press conference, Dr. Kimmerle expressed her motivation for leading this mission: “This project has always been about fulfilling a fundamental human right for families who, like all of us, have a right to know what happened to their loved ones and are entitled to bury their relatives in manner which they deem proper.”

The team used ground-penetrating radar to help find the grave shafts of at least 50 unmarked graves. The actual campus cemetery contains only 13 bodies, marked by pipe crosses to symbolize their death.

During the excavation, the research team found thousands of artifacts, which will help to date and more accurately record the identities of the boys buried. Some of the artifacts include belt buckles, buttons, coffin hardware, and a marble in a boy’s pocket.

Also known as the Florida School for Boys and Florida State Reform School, the juvenile detention center was operated by the state of Florida from 1900 to 2011. Well before the excavation took place, the school was notorious for allegations of physical and sexual assault against the boys incarcerated there. An investigation by the US Justice Department, as well as countless other accusations, led to the institution’s closure on May 26, 2011. Significantly, the official reason given by the state for closing the school was a lack of funds.

The school was intended for boys who committed crimes such as theft and murder. A change in the state’s law, however, lowered the requirement to include minor infractions from “incorrigibility” to “truancy,” leading to an increase in the number of boys who were sent there.

Boys who were sent to the school refer to themselves as the “White House Boys.” The designation refers to the building in the school where abuse took place. Boys as young as five years of age were subjected to beatings and rape, and were hog-tied and locked in isolation, sometimes up to three weeks, in the “White House.”

Students who died at the school were buried in unrecorded locations, and frequently had their deaths cited as “unknown” in the death certificates. School officials on multiple occasions did not report the deaths to the state, and failed to provide a death certificate or conduct any form of investigation. Some of the bodies were burned in the school incinerator, making it impossible to locate all the boys’ bodies in order to determine the cause of death.

As a result of the extensive research conducted by Dr. Kimmerle’s team, it was determined that a minimum of 98 boys died between 1914 and 1973. Many of the victims were young black males, ranging from the ages of 6 to 18. During their research, the team also discovered that 7 died while attempting to escape, and 20 died after having been there less than three months.

It would be no exaggeration, given the number of bodies discovered and the countless anecdotal stories related by those who survived the experience, to assume that many of the deaths did not result from natural causes, but from a range of violent and barbaric acts.

Researchers also suggest that many of the children buried may have been killed. Only further research will establish the cause of their deaths. Five sets of DNA samples have already been sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center to identify some of the bodies.

The University of South Florida was commissioned on August 6th, 2013, to begin the excavation of remains. Florida’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, had attempted to prevent the investigation by various means, including refusing to authorize the permit for it. The team was forced to appeal to the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, when Governor Rick Scott and his cabinet authorized Dr. Kimmerle to begin the excavation.

The first public exposure of the Dozier School took place in October 2008, when five former wards emerged publicly, telling their stories of physical and sexual abuse. The account was published in a Tampa Bay Times series entitled “For Their Own Good.” Since 2008, more than 500 people have come forward with similar stories, all giving similar testimony.

In 2009, a follow-up investigation by the Tampa Bay Times caused the governor to order a state investigation into the accusations. The FDLE, which carried out the investigation, determined in its 18-page report that the deaths of the 31 boys buried at the school were due to a fire that took place in 1914 and a subsequent flu outbreak. The FDLE report only relied on the school’s record to calculate the number of deaths and to map out the cemetery.

The authorities also ruled out allegations that the boys were killed by the guards and buried there. Because of lack of any first-hand information, Florida’s state attorney for the district, Glenn Hess, declined to open any formal criminal investigation.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2011 launched its own investigation into the school, ultimately leading to its termination. The DOJ released its report on December 2, 2011. Among its findings was the failure of Florida’s oversight system to “detect and sufficiently address harmful practices at both the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center.”

The report also stated that the school failed to properly protect the youth from harm, failed to provide any rehabilitation services in violation of due process rights, displayed indifference to the risk of self-injurious or suicidal behaviors, and implemented unconstitutional means of disciplinary confinement.

Despite the findings from the DOJ and the discovery of the bodies, Florida has yet to even open a criminal investigation of those who worked at the school. Another dig is scheduled for Dr. Kimmerle’s investigative team next month in the hope to find more bodies and to discover the truth behind the deaths of the boys.

The horrors being uncovered in Florida, spanning as they do a century of American history, including the likely attempt by the authorities to cover them up, targeting the most vulnerable sections of the working class, testify once more to the bankruptcy of the present social and political system.

A forensics team identified the remains of two more children at the notorious Florida School for Boys: here.

Pennsylvania: Kids for Cash: Inside One of the Nation’s Most Shocking Juvenile Justice Scandals: here.

The U.S. Is Locking People Up For Being Poor: here.