Retired prosecutor who convicted two men just exonerated after 30 years behind bars is unrepentant

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Perhaps it’s not a surprise that the person who was once nicknamed America’s “Deadliest D.A.” has no regrets over his role in putting Henry McCollum and Leon Brown on death row for a 1983 rape and murder in North Carolina—convictions that were overturned last week as a result of DNA evidence.

In a Sunday story in the New York Times, Joe Freeman Britt, the former District Attorney for Robeson County, N.C., maintained that McCollum and Brown are “absolutely” guilty and criticized the current prosecutor, distant relative Johnson Britt, for not defending the convictions. McCollum and Brown were condemned to death after being convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl. In a subsequent retrials, McCollum got the death penalty again, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison, Washington Post reported.

“I thought the D.A. just threw up his hands and capitulated, and the judge didn’t have any choice but to do what he did,” said the elder Britt, who earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for sending more than 40 criminal defendants to death row during his career, in an interview. When told that the younger Britt called him a “bully,” Joe Freeman Britt was even more colorful with his language. “Well, let’s say, if I was a bully, he is a pussy. How about that?” Britt said in an interview. “I think Johnson Britt has been hanging around too much with the wine and cheese crowd.”

The elder Britt, who had personally tried and convicted both McCollum and Brown, pointed to the fact that the two men had confessed and was dismissive of arguments that the two defendants, with IQ’s in the 50s and 60s, couldn’t legally understand what they were confessing to. “When we tried those cases, every time they would bring in shrinks to talk about how retarded they were,” Britt said. “It went on and on and on, blah-blah-blah.” Britt also downplayed the importance of DNA evidence, saying he didn’t understand why people put so much faith into it and that the evidence in question, a cigarette butt at the scene of the crime with DNA from another suspect, could have been there for any number of reasons unrelated to the crime.

Johnson Britt, for his part, pointed the finger squarely at the former occupant of his office and maintained that the elder Britt had committed Brady violations by withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense. Additionally, Johnson Britt criticized the elder Britt for ignoring a suspect in Roscoe Artis, the man whose DNA was on the cigarette in question. Artis confessed to raping and killing another young girl four weeks after the murder McCollum and Brown were charged with, and Artis had committed the crime near where McCollum and Brown were accused of committing their crimes. “What are the chances of this similar, if not same, crime occurring in this small town, and there not being a connection?” said Johnson Britt to the Times. “How could they not make this connection? The same prosecutor handled both trials, 90 days apart. I’m still dismayed.”

Kenneth Rose, a lawyer for McCollum and senior staff attorney of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, N.C., told the Times he intends to file a petition asking the governor to pardon his client. “It’s just astounding that people given so much power over other people’s lives, and who can totally destroy people’s lives, are so unwilling to consider facts,” Rose said.

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