A jury in Raleigh, N.C., awarded $75 million to two half-brothers were falsely convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983.
According to the Raleigh News & Observer, a jury decided that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown should each receive $31 million for the 31 years they spent in prison. Punitive damages of $13 million were also given to the brothers, who are both Black.
According to Elliot S. Abrams, an attorney for the brothers, said the payout is the biggest aggregate verdict in U.S. history in a wrongful conviction case and the greatest ever personal injury compensation in North Carolina, according to The Washington Post.
“The jury could not have sent a stronger message that the citizens of this country will not tolerate law enforcement misconduct and will no longer blindly believe the testimony of law enforcement over that of marginalized people,” he said.
The brothers pursued civil action against law officials for breaching their civil rights during interrogations that led to their convictions for the crime in Red Springs, N.C., after they were released from prison in 2014 when DNA evidence exonerated them.
Because of their intellectual limitations, McCollum and Brown, aged 19 and 15, struggled with basic reading and writing. But their lives were turned upside down when they were arrested in connection with the death of Sabrina Buie, a young girl discovered in a soybean field behind a grocery store in Red Springs, South Carolina. According to The Washington Post, the 11-year-old was raped and smothered with her own underwear while naked but for a bra.
The brothers were apprehended by police after a tip from a “confidential informant,” who turned out to be a 17-year-old classmate acting on suspicions she heard at school, according to the Guardian.
According to their attorneys, the police had pressured them into admitting. Des Hogan, a Washington attorney representing the brothers, claimed to the jury that such police action should never have been used as a basis for probable cause.
In 1985, the brothers were sentenced to death. Brown, who was 16 at the time, was the state’s youngest death-row inmate. McCollum would go down in history as the state’s longest-serving death row inmate. In the early 1990s, the brothers were retried, and Brown’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.
However, in 2009, McCollum contacted the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent body established by the state legislature.
According to the Associated Press, Red Springs, the municipality where the crime occurred and a defendant in the initial civil claim, settled for $1 million in 2017.
The boys’ most recent award will be protected by guardians designated by the court and controlled by it, according to Abrams.
“The brothers have been consistent in their position that they are only two of many innocent people who have been imprisoned, many of whom remain on the death rows throughout our nation,” Abrams said. “Their horrifying experience shows the need for the abolition of the death penalty in this country.”
After the jury’s judgment, the brothers embraced those people who supported them and wiped away a few tears. McCollum said a few words about what the moment meant to him, reflecting on individuals like him who have been or are presently on death row: “I’ve got my freedom.”