LUMBERTON, N.C. — The most memorable moment of the trial that put Henry McCollum and Leon Brown behind bars for three decades for a hideous 1983 rape and murder was a display of brilliant courtroom theatrics.
District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, who stood 6-foot-6 and came to be known as America’s “Deadliest D.A.,” asked jurors to try to hold their breath for five minutes — the time it took the 11-year-old victim to choke to death, after her killer stuffed her panties down her throat with a stick — to get a small sense of the horror she experienced.
The jury came back with two of the more than 40 death penalty convictions Mr. Britt won over almost two decades.
Those two convictions were obtained on the basis of inconsistent, soon recanted, confessions from two mentally impaired teenagers who said they had been coerced to sign statements written by interrogators, and testimony by an informer who previously did not implicate the two. They were overturned last week, and Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown were exonerated and set free.
Their release concluded a judicial horror story in which the two men were sent to death row though no physical evidence linked them to the murder. At the same time, a serial sex offender who lived less than 100 yards from the crime scene — and who, a few weeks after that murder, would kill a teenage girl nearby in strikingly similar circumstances — was never pursued as a suspect.