When Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two brothers, walked out of prison after being wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl 30 years ago, everyone applauded. Everyone, it seems, except for me: My thoughts were with the family of that little girl, Sabrina Buie.
I know how it feels to be Sabrina’s family, finding out that everything you believed about your loved one’s death is a lie—and that the justice you were promised never actually existed.
For 17 years police, judges and district attorneys told me my sister’s murderer was in prison. In fact, that was the only comfort they offered me. Instead of answering my questions about my sister’s death, police patted my hand and told me, “We have the individual who murdered your sister.”
It would have been so easy to believe them, and for several years I did. But something pushed me to visit the convicted killer in prison and to eventually decide that he was not the man who beat my sister, Jacquetta Thomas, and left her body in a Raleigh, N.C., street. I was able to hug Greg Taylor and celebrate with him in 2010, when he was finally freed by the work of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. I am still waiting for Jacquetta’s murderer to be found and brought to justice.
Now the Buie family faces the same journey that I took, trying to understand why the system they thought was protecting them is actually leaving killers to roam the streets.
They also carry one burden I didn’t have: knowing that two innocent men might have been executed for their child’s murder. McCollum and Brown both received the death penalty at their 1984 trial. Brown, who was 15 at the time of the crime, was eventually resentenced to life in prison. McCollum, however, stayed on death row for 30 years. If executions had not been suspended in North Carolina since 2006, he could have been executed before the Innocence Inquiry Commission took his case.
Many people think that all family members of murder victims want to see the killer executed, but they are wrong. For many families of victims, the death penalty does nothing to help us heal. Sometimes it makes our suffering worse.
In the large majority of murders, like my sister’s, prosecutors never seek the death penalty, so capital punishment has no impact on our cases. Those few families that get death sentences in their cases must go through years of appeals, during which it is very likely the sentence will be overturned.
Now they must also worry that the wrong person will be executed. McCollum was the latest of almost 150 death row inmates who have been exonerated in the United States, and it took 30 years for his innocence to be recognized.
Instead of patting our hands and promising us death sentences, our country should think harder about the best way to support victims and bring about true justice in our cases. After Jacquetta’s murder, my family was traumatized and vulnerable, yet we were offered no help or services.
Police did not keep us informed about their investigation or protect our privacy. Instead the police told the media, without even talking to us, that my sister was a prostitute. From then on, that is how she was identified in news stories.
Now police refuse to share any information about Jacquetta’s case. It has been 23 years since she was murdered, and the killer remains free. I served my country in the Army for almost eight years, and yet it appears that my family is worth nothing to our government.
I wish the Buie family peace as they come to terms with the sad truth: More than 30 years after their little girl’s body was found in a soybean field, they still don’t have the justice she deserved.
Yolanda Littlejohn is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, a community of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty. She lived most of her life in North Carolina but recently moved to Alaska.
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