How much is spending three decades of the prime of your life in prison after being wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes that were committed by someone else worth? There can be no just compensation, because the time and treasures that have been stolen simply cannot be replaced.
But the $750,000 that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown each stand to receive from the state is shamefully inadequate.
You now know the story: The two half-brothers, McCollum, then 19, and 15-year-old Brown, were convicted in 1984 of the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs that occurred during the fall of 1983, and each was sentenced to death.
They were convicted largely on circumstantial evidence — even when there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, which is rare in cases of rape and murder, especially when the alleged perpetrators suffer with low IQ’s, as do Brown and McCollum.
They won retrials in 1991, and McCollum was again convicted of rape and murder, but Brown only of rape. Their death sentences were reduced to life.
Enter the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission which, after years of getting the run around, was able to show DNA evidence from a discarded cigarette found near Buie’s body came from Roscoe Artis, who was already in prison for a rape and murder in Red Springs that was eerily similar to that of Buie’s and occurred shortly afterward.
Why these dots were not connected back in 1984 we don’t know, but we suspect it has much to do with Brown and McCollum’s station in life — poor, black teenagers, both with learning disabilities and without the necessary legal resources. In fewer words, no one who mattered cared.
But the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commissioner cared, and McCollum and Brown in October walked free after their convictions were overturned and District Attorney Johnson Britt wisely did not seek to try them again.
They have since been trying to reclaim their lives to the extent possible — and pardons last week by Gov. Pat McCrory should at least provide them financial stability in that effort. We wish McCrory had pulled that trigger sooner; McCollum and Brown have suffered enough at the hands of a plodding judicial system.
The pardon makes both men eligible for free job-training provided by the state, but given their disabilities and three decades in prison, it’s hard to envision them holding down steady jobs. But the pardon also made them eligible to receive $50,000 for each year they were in prison, with a cap of 15 years.
We don’t understand the philosophy behind the cap; the state would not go broke if it compensated each man $1.5 million for all three decades instead of $750,000. Certainly the suffering the men endured did not end with the beginning of their 16th year in prison.
It’s not only way too little, it’s way too late.