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 — 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 from an informer who previously did not implicate the two young men — were overturned last week. 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, while 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.
But if the case was finally closed, the episode reopened ugly memories of what critics say was a merciless criminal justice system that ran roughshod over helpless people for decades in this poor, sprawling, racially volatile county sometime known as the Great State of Robeson.
At the heart of that is the legacy of Joe Freeman Britt, who earned a spot in “Guinness World Records” and a “60 Minutes” profile for his prowess in sending people to death row. (Only two were eventually executed. The most infamous was Velma Barfield, 52, who died from lethal injection in 1984 for killing her fiancé by poisoning his beer.)
And whereas Mr. Britt, now 79 and retired, once dominated this county and won headlines for convictions, now some on both sides of the courtroom see a different tale.
The current district attorney, Johnson Britt, whose grandfather was first cousin to Joe Freeman Britt’s father, suggested that his predecessor could be tyrannical.
“He is a bully, and that’s the way he ran this office,” he said. “People were afraid of him. Lawyers were afraid of him. They were intimidated by his tactics. And he didn’t mind doing it that way.” He added: “You treat people with dignity, and you can get a whole lot more done that way than you can by trying to run over people. And that’s part of his legacy, that he ran over people.”
In a subsequent interview, Joe Freeman Britt made it clear that Johnson Britt was not his kind of prosecutor, either.
“Well, let’s say, if I was a bully, he is a pussy. How about that?” the elder Mr. Britt said...