This police misconduct cost taxpayers $86.3 million

Not counting 64 years’ of incarceration costs.[1]

Two black half-brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, 19 and 15 at the time (photo, left), were railroaded to North Carolina’s death row for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl named Sabrina Buie (photo, right) by sheriff’s deputies and state detectives who coerced their confessions and suppressed evidence of their innocence.

They escaped execution, but spent 31 horrific years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence, freed in 2014, and pardoned in 2015.

On Friday, May 14, 2021, a federal jury awarded them $75 million of damages against the state — $1 million for each year of incarceration plus $13 million of punitive damages — on top of the $8 million settlements from the sheriff’s department and $1 million from the town they’ve already received.

The attorney for the state defendants tried to persuade the jury the men committed the crime, even though they’d been exonerated and pardoned, prompting the judge to admonish the jury the argument was “inappropriate” (see story here).

In fact, the DNA evidence identified another man, a convicted murderer. He must have been an insurance company lawyer (read his law firm profile here). In earlier court proceedings, those defendants lost in their efforts to claim immunity (see court decision here).

There’s a deeper story behind these legal judgments and settlements (read an abridged version here). And it’s an old story: Cops, under pressure to quickly solve a high-profile case involving a brutal crime, take the easy road of extracting a questionable confession instead of doing the hard work of real investigation:

“One police officer came across a high school student who repeated a rumor she’d heard at school: Henry McCollum, a teen from out of town, seemed suspicious and might have been involved in the crime. Henry had intellectual disabilities, which may have been why other teens felt he behaved strangely. When officers showed up at his mother’s house, Henry went to the police station voluntarily. It was evening, and a group of law enforcement officers kept him in an interrogation room until late in the night, demanding that Henry tell them about the crime, promising him that if he gave them the facts about the crime, he would be allowed to go home. After four and a half hours of questioning, Henry broke. He told the officers a story filled with details they’d given him, about a rape and murder he had nothing to do with. The officers wrote up a grisly confession and Henry, who could barely comprehend the written document, signed it. And then he asked, ‘Can I go home now?’ He had no idea that he wouldn’t go home again for more than three decades.”

This isn’t just lousy police work, or even detective malpractice; it’s immoral to play with someone else’s life that way. Yet it’s a story that’s played out again and again. It’s not an exaggeration to say police extracting false confessions from teenagers happens all the time (see Innocence Project statement here).

The bottom line is that bad policing, in addition to wrecking innocent lives, costs taxpayers huge sums of money. In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, public and media attention were focused on police killings and abuse of black people. But the problems in U.S. law enforcement are much broader, and go much deeper, than just racist and homicidal policing. There is a profound need for reforms in both policing (in terms of who gets hired, how they’re trained and supervised, police procedures, and oversight) and the criminal justice system (which has convicted far too many innocent people).

While there are limits to what we can do as individuals, there is something we can do: Insist that society have a conscience and address these problems, instead of sweeping them under the rug after the settlements are paid. Otherwise, taxpayers will continue to be on the hook for police abuses that shock the conscience until the end of time. Handwringing over the endless parade of egregious injustices simply isn’t enough.

[1] North Carolina estimates its average incarceration costs at $37,712 per year in current dollars (see data here), which works out to $2,338,144 for 31 years x 2, although death row costs may be higher.

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0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Mark Adams #

    There is more to the story. Prosecutors are not fulfilling their their ethical obligations. They should be the speedbump in these cases. They are perhaps too cozy with the police. The Prosecutor is usually an elected official who needs to show the public high conviction rates and [courtroom wins], suggesting part of the problem is us the voters.
    Are there other justice systems that are better? The problem is that there are not. The Justinian system used in much of the world suffers many of the same faults and also justice is blind and heavy handed. China’s model as well as North Korea’s are unjust tools of dictators. And these other systems in the world are generally reluctant to admit mistakes and release the innocent when justice has gone awry, let alone give generous restitution as in this case, as the state is immune or any restitution is limited by statute. [This comment has been edited.]

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    It should be easier to reform flawed policing and criminal justice in our democracy than under a dictatorship. Even so, it’s incredibly hard, and requires persistent pressure from the public for change.