Attorney Who Freed Innocent Men Still Angry

Kenneth Rose, senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is the lawyer who helped free two mentally handicapped brothers in North Carolina be freed after three decades in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. And while he’s happy that they’re out, he’s still justifiably angry at the system that put them there.

Finally proving Henry and Leon’s innocence was a great victory, but what I cannot forget is that this case is, above all, a tragedy. Two innocent men — both intellectually disabled — spent three decades of their lives being, essentially, tortured by the state of North Carolina…

I have been Henry’s attorney for 20 of those years, and he and his family pleaded with me to prove his innocence. But I couldn’t help Henry in a system where the deck was stacked against him. He had signed a detailed confession before a change in laws to require confessions to be videotaped. I had no way to prove that the details in the confession police wrote for Henry — down to the brand of cigarettes smoked by the perpetrator — were all provided by law enforcement.

I was told that the police file on Henry’s case had been lost, so I could not tell how much evidence police had to ignore to pin this crime on two disabled boys with no history of violence. Until the Innocence Inquiry Commission unearthed that missing file, I didn’t know that Roscoe Artis, the man whom DNA showed to be the true perpetrator, was a convicted rapist who lived one block from the crime scene, or that, at the time of Henry and Leon’s arrest, Artis was wanted for another, almost identical rape and murder.

I also didn’t know until I saw the file that, three days before Henry’s trial began, law enforcement asked the State Bureau of Investigation to test a fingerprint found at the crime scene for a match with Artis. This was an important request, considering that no physical evidence linked Henry or Leon to the crime. Unbelievably, the test was never completed, and the district attorney tried Henry and Leon for their lives. Artis’s name was never mentioned at the trial…

Now, with Henry finally free, some people expect me to feel satisfied, or even happy. The truth is: I am angry.

I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.

As I lie awake at night, mulling over the maddening details of this case, I wonder: How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?

I think the answer is a lot. Far too many. This is a drum I’ve been beating for more than a decade now. Every state should have an innocence commission. Every DA’s office should have a division that does nothing but post-conviction analysis to find wrongful convictions. The entire criminal justice system needs to be reformed from the bottom up. That’s the only way to prevent this from happening again and again.

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  • Trebuchet

    How many RWNJ’s are outraged that they let these two thugs out of prison, I wonder?

  • grumpyoldfart

    I vaguely remember a case in Australia many years ago. Back in those days verbal confessions were admissible evidence.

    This particular guy was being extradited from Sydney to Melbourne and he knew what was going to happen, so as he was being escorted across the tarmac he kept yelling to the reporters that he was not going to say anything to the police during the flight; that he wouldn’t say a word to anyone about anything.

    When the plane landed in Melbourne an hour later, a grinning policeman informed reporters that the man had finally seen the error of his ways and made a verbal confession during the flight.

    I can’t remember any other details.

  • Donovan

    In my more optimistic youth, I wanted to go to law school to become a prosecutor. I wanted to be an honest example more intent on prosecuting crimes than people, seeking the truth of the circumstances. I learned quickly that such an aim would ensure I never became a prosecutor, or, if I did, it would be a very short and frustratingly depressing career.

  • colnago80

    The mother fuckken sumbitch bastard who prosecuted the case, Joe Freeman Britt, still maintains that the two were guilty and that the current prosecutor is a wimp for not retrying them. This asshole is the textbook example of all too many prosecutors out there. A Michael Nifong award to him. Fortunately, he is no longer the DA in that county.

  • dugglebogey

    Until the system changes where police and prosecutors are required to get the right man, not just a man, this type of abuse will continue.

    Look when the police go so far out of their way to knowingly convict someone who is innocent, they must be charged with a crime themselves. The de-facto immunity that they have received up to now has to end.

  • ricko

    Well, except those states that don’t put people to death… Like Wisconsin.

  • eric

    Its not necessarily mistakes that upset me. No matter how good our justice system, we have to expect some. The thing that upsets me is that most of these wrongful imprisonment findings tend to point to prosecutor misconduct. It’s not like we’re finding a lot of cases of “yeah, it was a slam dunk case that the guy was guilty, who knew that evidence unavailable at the time would find him innocent 10 years later?” What we seem to be finding more often is “it looks like the prosecutor illegally hid evidence or did not do tests at the time that would’ve shown this guy was innocent.” THAT is upsetting.

  • David C Brayton

    This case makes me feel outrage. There were so many things done that were so profoundly unfair by so many people.

  • velociraptor

    The solution is simple:

    Judicial findings of innocence result in an immediate Federal trial for procecutorial and/or police misconduct for the procecutor and all law enforcement officials involved. In the event of a conviction, the convicted receive the same sentence as those wrongfully convicted.

    Effective immediately.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal


    Meh. Maybe.

    We need to change the incentives for prosecutors IMHO. We need to pass reform which makes it illegal for them to be judged on the basis of how many convictions they get. We need similar reform for police.

    Then, make all prosecutors nominated. Ditto for judges. Direct elections for prosecutors and judges is insane.

    Then, lessen the immunity enjoyed by civil services, and then do a magic incantation to change the culture of the public at large, all so that juries can and actually will convict these bastards.