BY SUZANNE KARIOKI
It was a dreary, overcast day in Memphis. A woman awoke that morning in her apartment, to find that two men had broken in. One of them was holding a knife. Later, she would give the police a description, a name and an address. But that night, before the men left her home, the men assaulted her and took her television set.
It was October 2, 1977.
The victim—never named publicly—identified her attackers to police as the sons of two friends; one was “Polly’s boy”, she said, the other “Ollie Mae’s”. With the name of one and the address of the other, police arrived at 22-year-old Lawrence McKinney’s home later that day. After a few minutes of knocking with no answer, they were forced to find another way to contact them.
McKinney had a friend, Michael Yancy, around the same age, and police turned to Yancy’s home for answers. When police arrived, they found both men, with Yancy hiding in a closet, apparently afraid that the police were there to arrest him for another crime. As for the rape and burglary, both Yancy and McKinney insisted they were innocent: they had not left Yancy’s apartment at the time of the incident. They had been drinking and watching TV all night.
The next year, on July 22, 1978, McKinney and Yancy were sentenced to 100 years for the charge of rape and 10 years for burglary. McKinney maintained his innocence, but would spend the next few years pleading guilty in the hopes of alleviating his sentence.
In 2008, McKinney would request a DNA test of the evidence. In January 2009, examiners would find the DNA profiles of Yancy, the victim’s boyfriend and a third, unidentified male. McKinney’s DNA would be notably absent.
By July 2009, McKinney was finally a free man after serving 31 years for first degree rape and a burglary he had never committed. Proven innocent, McKinney was awarded just $75 in compensation.
Life after prison is notoriously difficult: out of the 650,000 prisoners who are released every year in the United States, two-thirds of those will reoffend and return to prison within three years. For those who manage to re-adjust to normal life, having a criminal record affects the ability to find jobs, housing and receive most government assistance. Convicted felons must disclose the fact that they have been convicted of a crime, and employers are free to use this fact to deny them work. Felons are not allowed to live in public housing, apply for food stamps or receive federal grants for higher education. In some states, felons are denied the right to vote for a period of time after their release. In other states, this is a lifetime ban.
Shaka Senghor was convicted of second-degree murder when he was 19. He spent 7 out of 19 years in prison in solitary confinement. Senghor found society shockingly resistant to hiring a felon and resorted to starting his own business and doing contracting work in order to support his family. Senghor now advocates for improving the lives of people trying to reform their lives after conviction. When speaking to others who have been convicted of crimes but not incarcerated, finding work is still exceptionally difficult: “When people are sentenced, that sentence never ends,” he said in a 2016 interview with Memphis Public Radio, even when they step out of prison."
After people serve time for crimes they commit, they enter a world that often pushes them back towards behavior that sent them to prison, including drug dealing, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. Innocent people who serve time and are not cleared of their charges, often face the same harsh consequences.
Red Springs, North Carolina, is a small town, home to less than 4,000 people in a county that is one of the few minority-majority areas in the country; 68% of Robeson County is American Indian, Hispanic or Black.
Red Springs boasts a single CVS, a McDonald's, and H&R Block on main street. Its elementary, middle and high school enroll 1,800 students in total, and if people here don’t attend college, they go to work. Red Springs enjoys an unemployment rate that is below the state average, although the state is still losing its prized manufacturing jobs. This is a town that skewed heavily Democratic for decades, until the most recent election. Red Springs, like many towns with residents below the poverty line, is struggling.
In 1983, the town wasn’t much bigger. In a place this small, and a population that has barely shifted for decades, everyone knew each other—outsiders stuck out.
On September 26, 1983, Ronnie Buie called the police to report his daughter, Sabrina, missing. It was a Monday at the tail end of summer, still warm as the days grew shorter. She was last seen her in the front yard of their home, and had left to return a bicycle to a friend. “She said in the yard she'd be right back, but she never came back,” her sister, Tenitia, recalled. Sabrina was eleven years old.
The next day, the body of a young girl was found in a soybean field. She had been raped and suffocated with her underwear. Her body was naked, aside from her bra, which had been twisted around to the back of her neck.
It was Sabrina.
Police recovered several pieces of evidence—Sabrina’s bloody clothing, a cigarette butt, some beer cans—both near her body and at another location, which helped create a rough sketch of events: Sabrina had been raped and murdered near the local grocery store, and then dragged to the soybean field and abandoned there.
Robeson County experiences its fair share of violence, but it mostly consists of robberies and thefts; rapes are rare, and murders even more so. For Red Springs, it wasn’t long before people started speculating: soon, a student from the high school came forward to police with potential tip, on one Henry McCollum.
McCollum was 19 at the time, originally from New Jersey and was in town to visit his mother. McCollum, when tested later, was found to have an IQ of 51.
McCollum was taken into custody and for four hours, and police interrogated him until he confessed: he and four others had taken the victim to a field, taken turns raping her, and eventually suffocated her. During McCollum’s interrogation, Leon Brown—McCollum’s 15-year-old half-brother—arrived at the station with their mother and sister. McCollum signed the confession and eventually so did Brown, identifying Darrell Suber and Chris Brown as the other perpetrators in the crime.
Although the other boys were implicated by Brown and McCollum’s confessions, they were not charged with any crimes. They had alibis, and evidence couldn’t tie them to the crime. Of Brown and McCollum, no physical evidence from the scene linked either of them to the assault or murder.
On October 12, 1984, McCollum and Brown, who was also later found to have an IQ of 49, were sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Roscoe Artis—now suspected for the crime that Brown and his brother were imprisoned for—had an extensive criminal history at the time, and lived around the corner from Sabrina’s family in 1983. Three weeks after Sabrina’s body was found, Artis confessed to the murder and rape of another young, Red Springs woman. The family was never aware of such a man, even though Artis also provided details about Sabrina’s death during interviews, and repeatedly insisted that Brown and McCollum were innocent.
But both Brown and McCollum would serve 31 years before DNA evidence finally proved their innocence. Brown, 15 at the time of his conviction, is now a 46 year old man. He was awarded $750,000 by the state of North Carolina in 2015, 37 years after the crime.
With one injustice corrected, another arose; after Brown and McCollum’s release, prosecutors were left with an unsolved case file with thousands of documents and mishandled evidence to sort through. For Sabrina’s family, this is the reopening of a wound that never fully healed. When interviewed by the local news, her younger sister’s greatest fear was that her murder would be forgotten.
"Who's going to pay for this?" Tenitia asked.
The Innocence Project began 25 years ago with Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck and seeks to prove the innocence of wrongly convicted men and women using DNA evidence. To date, its network of independent organizations has overturned the convictions of over 300 people charged with crimes such as rape, burglary and murder. Some of the people they have freed were once death row inmates. Many of them served 20 or more years for crimes they did not commit.
Brown and McKinney’s cases were both reopened and rectified by volunteers who were part of the Innocence Project. Both are part of a larger trend in wrongful convictions that the group has extensively researched: many are convicted based on forced confessions like Brown’s, or eyewitness misidentification like McKinney’s case. Others are sent to prison because they can’t afford lawyers, or because they are convicted based on evidence given by paid informants. The Project focuses on using DNA to overturn convictions, but also notes that 45% of exoneration cases are a result of mishandled forensic evidence; in other words, these are cases that would never have existed if evidence had been used correctly. In a Gallup poll from 2000, 85% of Americans believed, with a large degree of confidence, that DNA was a highly reliable form of evidence; by 2005, that percentage had substantially increased. To a jury, forensic science can seem infallible.
Although it can be unequivocal in ideal circumstances, crime scenes are rarely perfect: evidence can be polluted by stray animal hair, fingerprints can be obscured, and samples can be too small to accurately determine the prints belong to. But this doesn’t stop forensic testimony from over-exaggerating or oversimplifying data, and with a public fascinated by what can apparently be gleaned from a single fingerprint (aided in no small part by a flurry of true crime and mystery television), juries can be swayed to convict a subject, even if they’re innocent.
Like the Innocence Project, non-profits like UK-based Sense About Science are trying to educate the public on the reality of DNA evidence, consulting experts and working with legislators to ensure that forensic labs are held to higher standards. The future looks promising.
But for those who have already been convicted, the exoneration process is a lengthy one, mostly hindered by time: most organizations that handle these cases are nonprofits with small budgets and even smaller staff. It can take years for a case file to be processed, and even longer for a parole board to accept an application. And for those waiting on death row, time is in even shorter supply.
Today, Lawrence McKinney is 62 years old. With a criminal record, he struggled to pay his bills and take care of his ailing wife, and was twice denied the chance to clear his record of a crime he didn’t commit. In front of the parole board in 2016, the board voted unanimously to deny him exoneration, citing his violent behavior in prison, which he claimed was a necessity to survive. But McKinney never lost faith: “I got two good lawyers that God put by my side, then I got a pastor and I got a church who going to stand behind me,” he said at the time.
That faith paid off: in 2017 he was finally exonerated and eligible to claim compensation for time wrongfully served.
But the money wasn’t important, according to McKinney’s pastor. “Very few people know Lawrence well,” he says. He is a confident man, speaking candidly into a microphone for the local news, squinting against the weak afternoon sun. As he speaks, the camera switches to footage of McKinney, a quiet man who keeps to himself and doesn’t engage the camera. “The few people who know him, know what he’s all about”.
In March 2018, McKinney was received $1 million in compensation, the largest amount of money Tennessee has ever awarded. He’s been thrust into the limelight now, no longer a criminal and finally able to live the life he should have had 30 years ago. In interviews, he still cites his faith in God as the one thing that kept his hope alive. But mostly, McKinney is someone who spent decades of his adult life falsely imprisoned, who simply wants a quiet, peaceful life.
Michael Yancy, sentenced with him in 1978, remains in prison. The last, unidentified perpetrator, remains unfound.