(CNN) – A federal jury awarded $ 75 million to two brothers in North Carolina, decades after they were convicted of rape and murder they did not commit.
Leon Brown and Henry McCollum were arrested in 1983 and spent nearly 31 years in prison before the half-brothers were exonerated in 2014.
The compensation is significant because not all those exonerated in the United States are guaranteed compensation. The federal government, Washington, and only 35 states have some kind of restitution lawsaccording to the Innocence Project, but advocates say many of them do not compensate people.
Like many exonerators across the country, Brown and McCollum chose to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against government agencies involved in their wrongful convictions, a process that advocates say often takes years and is challenging to win.
Last week, a federal jury ruled that Brown and McCollum should be compensated for their time in prison, nearly six years after filing a lawsuit in federal court. The jury awarded them $ 31 million each in compensatory damages, or $ 1 million for each year they were incarcerated. They will also receive an additional $ 13 million in punitive damages, according to court documents.
Brown and McCollum were arrested and charged in 1983 with the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs, North Carolina, CNN previously reported. Both were sentenced to death, but Brown later reduced his sentence to life in prison.
In 2014, both Brown and McCollum were exonerated and released from prison after DNA from a cigarette collected at the scene was analyzed and someone else was eventually linked to the crime. The brothers filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2015 against local officials involved in the original case.
In the trial for their civil case, the brothers’ lawyers had to show that they had been wrongly convicted and argued that they had been forced to give false confessions.
Attorney Elliot Abrams said his team presented evidence showing investigators withheld information in Brown and McCollum’s initial trial, including how the interrogations were conducted and the existence of another suspect.
“There was a heinous rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and the Government said that these two people did it and confessed to it. There was nothing to counteract that, ”Abrams said. “Now we know they covered it up intentionally.”
At the time, McCollum was 19 years old with a low IQ, which Abrams compares to that of a 9-year-old; and there were inconsistencies when comparing statements made to police with details from the crime scene and autopsy, the attorneys argued in the lawsuit.
CNN has reached out to Scott MacLatchie, attorney for the two North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agents involved in the case, and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department for comment.
Unlike many exoneration cases, the attorneys representing McCollum and Brown were successful in their attempts to prove misconduct, said Rebecca Brown, policy director for the Innocence Project.
“Sometimes someone was misidentified and it wasn’t necessarily because there was an intentional suggestive alignment, it’s just a bug in the system that will exist anyway,” Brown said. “That certainly does not mean that there was no misconduct, it just means that it is very difficult to prove misconduct that rises to the level of a violation of civil rights.”
Exonerated must fight to be compensated, say advocates
The Innocence Project, along with other groups across the country, has been advocating for wrongful conviction compensation laws that apply to all who have been cleared.
Since 1989, more than 2,700 people who were wrongfully convicted have been exonerated of state and federal crimes, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Approximately 50% of the wrongfully convicted persons in the registry identify as black and less than 10% are women.
Advocates say that many people do not receive compensation due to lack of statutes in their states or because there are restrictive requirements in states with enacted laws.
“If the majority of actual innocent people cannot be compensated under a civil rights scheme, using civil litigation, we want to pass laws in every state that provide comprehensive compensation, regardless of whether you can prove guilt, regardless of whether the individuals they can prove official misconduct. We want everyone to be able to be treated equally under the law, ”Brown said.
Fernando Bermudez wrongly paid 18 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit in New York, but had to wait three years after filing a claim before receiving his first settlement. He said he was exonerated in 2009 and received two settlements, one from the state and one from the city in 2014 and 2017, respectively.
“Once I got out I knew that this would not be the end of my fight … I was outraged to have to fight for this, I had to fight for compensation and be recriminalized in the process,” Bermudez said.
During those years, Bermudez says authorities still viewed him as having been legitimately arrested, charged and convicted.
“They look at those things to try and argue that you didn’t really have a life or contribute to society,” Bermudez said.
One of the leading causes of wrongful convictions is official misconduct by police officers or prosecutors, according to a study published last year by the National Registry of Exemptions. Brown with the Innocence Project says the pending George Floyd Police Justice Act of 2021 could help decrease the number of wrongful convictions by ending qualified immunity.
“Until law enforcement agencies are actually responsible for this kind of restitution, and share the responsibility of the individual police officers who have a stake in the game, until that happens, you will not see changes in police culture or policy,” said Brown. . “Qualified immunity, eliminating it, is not only a reform on restitution, but also on incentivizing change in the police agency.”
For Jabbar Collins, a paralegal who wrongfully served 16 years in a New York state prison for the murder of a rabbi, the Leon Brown and McCollum jury award does not “fully capture” the loss and damage they suffered. .
“These guys went to jail, they were young, they lost almost half their lives and they will spend the rest of their lives trying to rebuild and trying to make sense of what they have lost and that’s the reality,” Collins said.
Eleven years have passed since Collins was released and he says there are parts of his life that he is still trying to process.
“Money helps, but it never, never completes you,” Collins said.
CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.