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Exoneree brothers falsely jailed for 31 years receive $75 million in compensation

Leon Brown and Henry McCollum were arrested in 1983 for a crime they did not commit. After being exonerated in 2014, they have successfully secured $75 million from a federal jury.

Exoneree brothers falsely jailed for 31 years receive $75 million in compensation
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A federal jury has awarded exonerees Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, two half-brothers from North Carolina, $75 million. The brothers spent 31 years in jail after being arrested in 1983 on false charges of rape and murder. Brown and McCollum were exonerated in 2014, following which they chose to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the government agencies responsible for their wrongful convictions. The $75 million award is particularly notable as not all exonerees receive compensation for the time they lost or the trauma they suffered. Furthermore, the process of litigation often takes years and is challenging to win. Nonetheless, Brown and McCollum have defeated the odds, CNN reports.


As per court documents, the two brothers will each receive $31 million in compensatory damages, which amounts to $1 million for each year that they spent in incarceration. Furthermore, they will receive an additional $13 million total in punitive damages. This is a notable victory, as according to the Innocence Project, only the federal government, Washington, DC, and an odd 35 states have some form of restitution laws. In addition to the lack of a federal policy, many existing laws fall short in compensating people, advocates note.


Brown and McCollum were falsely arrested for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs, North Carolina. Originally, both brothers were sentenced to death. However, Brown had his sentence reduced to life in prison. They were released from prison in 2014 after DNA from a cigarette collected at the crime scene was tested. The DNA ultimately tied another person to the crime. The duo proceeded to file a civil rights lawsuit in 2015 against the local officials involved in the original case. To win, the brothers had to prove they were wrongfully convicted under false and coerced confessions. Brown and McCollum's litigation team, led by Attorney Elliot Abrams, displayed evidence to prove that the investigators withheld information in the brothers' initial trial. This included the way in which the interrogations were conducted as well as the existence of another suspect.


"There was a heinous rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and the government said these two people did it and confessed to it," Abrams stated. "There was nothing to counter that. We now know they covered it up intentionally." Attorneys also argued that there were inconsistencies when comparing statements made to police with details of the crime scene and the autopsy. Rebecca Brown, the director of policy for the Innocence Project, noted that the brothers' attorneys were successful in their attempts to prove misconduct, a rare accomplishment in exoneration cases. She stated, "Sometimes somebody was just misidentified and it wasn't necessarily because there was an intentional suggestive lineup, it's just error in the system that will exist anyway. That does not mean by the way that there wasn't misconduct, it just means that it's very difficult to prove misconduct that rises to the level of a civil rights violation."


Brown and McCollum are only two of the thousands of folks wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit. Only a few are exonerated. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations reveals that since the year 1989, over 2,700 people who were wrongfully convicted have been exonerated of state and federal crimes. An estimated 50% of those wrongfully convicted people in the registry identify are Black, and less than 10% women. Unfortunately, those who are exonerated rarely receive any compensation, least of all as much as the brothers did. The Innocence Project has been advocating for wrongful conviction compensation laws that apply to all who have been exonerated. "If the majority of actually innocent people can't be compensated under a civil rights scheme, using civil litigation, we want to pass laws in every state that provides global compensation, regardless of whether you can demonstrate fault, regardless of whether people can prove official misconduct," Brown affirmed. "We want everyone to be able to be equally treated under the law."


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