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Getting It Dead Wrong for 30 Years

Posted on in Death Penalty
By Cassandra Stubbs, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project

According to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Henry Lee McCollum deserved to die for the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. There's just one problem, and a frequent one in death penalty cases: Henry Lee McCollum didn't do it.

Instead of tracking down the true killer, police and prosecutors went after Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled and innocent teenagers. While his mother wept in the hallway, not allowed to see her son, officers interrogated McCollum for five hours, ultimately coercing him to sign a confession they had written. In a trial without forensic evidence and plagued by racial bias, these two half-brothers with IQs in the 50s and 60s were sent to death row. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, whose sentence was later reduced to life in prison, have been behind bars for the last 30 years.

Last week, they were finally exonerated in another disturbing example of how deeply flawed the death penalty is, particularly for African-American men in the South.

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RALEIGH – Support for protecting citizens from unwarranted government surveillance and moving toward more compassionate medical marijuana laws may be rising in the North Carolina General Assembly, according to an annual legislative report card released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC). The report card shows how members of the North Carolina House and Senate voted on legislation introduced during the 2014 session concerning five key civil liberties issues: privacy rights, protections for government whistleblowers, religious liberty, racial and juvenile justice, and compassionate drug policy.

Of particular note, 18 Senate Republicans voted against H.B. 348, which would have dramatically expanded the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) on state-owned roads and highways without including crucial safeguards to protect people’s privacy from unwarranted government surveillance. The ACLU-NC has been working with lawmakers from both parties to pass substantive privacy protections concerning law enforcement’s use of ALPRs and other surveillance technology that is currently unregulated in North Carolina. 

“North Carolinians who support civil liberties should be cautiously optimistic about the growing numbers of lawmakers who support protecting people’s privacy from unwarranted government surveillance,” said ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston. “The near unanimous support for providing patients suffering from epileptic seizures with safe access to a marijuana-based oil is also very encouraging, and we continue to urge lawmakers to extend their compassion to other North Carolinians who are suffering and could benefit from a comprehensive medical marijuana law. However, support for many other key civil liberties, particularly religious liberty for students of minority beliefs, was sorely lacking in both political parties this session.”

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GREENSBORO – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation have asked a federal judge to quickly overturn North Carolina’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples in light of a recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that found Virginia’s similar marriage ban unconstitutional.

In documents filed late yesterday with a federal judge in Greensboro, the ACLU explains that the Fourth Circuit’s decision striking down Virginia’s marriage ban created a legal precedent that must be followed by courts in North Carolina, one of five states in the Fourth Circuit. On July 30, Judge William Osteen Jr. asked the parties in two ACLU cases challenging North Carolina’s marriage ban to explain the significance of the Fourth Circuit ruling to North Carolina’s law.

“The ruling from the Fourth Circuit makes plain that North Carolina’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is discriminatory and unconstitutional,” said ACLU-NC Legal Director Chris Brook. “By denying gay and lesbian couples the dignity and legal security that comes with marriage, North Carolina’s law has harmed countless families and made it harder for people to take care of those they love. We are asking the court to provide relief for these families and strike down North Carolina’s discriminatory and unconstitutional ban without delay.”

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A federal judge today rejected North Carolina's request to avoid a full trial over the state's sweeping voter suppression law. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice are challenging provisions of the law that eliminate a week of early voting, end same-day registration, and prohibit out-of-precinct voting. The groups were in court last month to argue that those measures should be placed on hold prior to next summer's trial, and in time for the November election. The judge ruled the law can remain in effect until trial.

"If this law is found unconstitutional, North Carolinians whose voting rights were violated in the midterm election will have lost a critical opportunity to participate in our democratic process," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "While we had hoped the court would recognize this irreparable harm, the ultimate goal is to see these discriminatory measures struck down. We look forward to making our case at full trial, which is something the state had sought to avoid."

The groups charge the law unduly burdens the right to vote and discriminates against African-American voters, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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