Scalia Once Pushed Death Penalty For Now-Exonerated Inmate Henry Lee McCollum

09/02/2014 11:09 pm ET | Updated Sep 03, 2014

A North Carolina death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence on Tuesday was once held up by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an example of someone who deserved to die.

When the court declined to review an unrelated death row case out of Texas in 1994, Justice Harry A. Blackmun issued a dissenting opinion arguing that capital punishment is cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional.

Scalia answered back with an opinion of his own:

"For example, the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat," Scalia wrote in Callins v. Collins. "How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!"

He was referring to Henry Lee McCollum, who at the time had already been on death row for 12 years. McCollum's conviction was overturned on Tuesday when DNA evidence implicated another man in the case.

McCollum had been on death row for almost 30 years.

Superior Court Judge Douglass Sasser also overturned the conviction against McCollum's half-brother, Leon Brown, who has been serving a life sentence in connection with the case.

Blackmun later responded to Scalia, writing of the flaws in the case as well as McCollum's mental capacity.

"That our system of capital punishment would single out Buddy McCollum to die for this brutal crime only confirms my conclusion that the death penalty experiment has failed," he wrote. "Our system of capital punishment simply does not accurately and consistently determine which defendants most 'deserve' to die."

Scalia has been a frequent and vocal supporter of the death penalty and even once suggested that an innocent man had never been put to death, at least in recent years.

"It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case -- not one -- in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit," Scalia wrote in the 2006 Kansas v. Marsh case. "If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby."

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  • 29 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
    South Carolina Department of Corrections
  • NAME: Edward Lee Elmore
    STATE: South Carolina
    RELEASED IN 2002

    In 1982, Dorothy Edwards of Greenwood, South Carolina, an elderly white woman beloved by her community, was brutally murdered and raped in her home. Edwards' neighbor offered up Elmore, her handyman, as the perpetrator of the crime, even as he maintained his innocence. Elmore was arrested, went to trial 82 days later, and received a death sentence -- a conviction that he received three times as appeal courts overturned each verdict. The case was riddled with bad (even planted) evidence, an incompetent defense, a tainted crime scene, and police coverups. He spent 29 years on death row until his defense argued that he was mentally disabled and legally could not be executed, so he was reduced to a life sentence. In 2002 -- 29 years later -- he pled guilty to murder in exchange for release.

    Check out CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" (Sundays 9pm ET/PT) for a deeper look into this case.
  • 25 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
  • NAME: Krishna Maharaj
    STATE: Florida
    COMMUTED TO LIFE SENTENCE IN 2002

    One-time millionaire and business magnate Kris Maharaj was convicted on two counts of murder in 1987. The case was plagued by covered-up evidence, false eyewitness accounts, and a shoddy defense (who didn't call any of his many witnesses to the stand as a "tactical" maneuver). Clive Stafford Smith has worked on this case for years, and in 2002, succeeded in commuting Maharaj’s death sentence to a life term following serious misconduct on the part of the judge and prosecution. Smith continues to fight for Maharaj's release, saying: “It is unfathomable to most rational people that the US Supreme Court says that innocence is not a reason to set a prisoner free. That Kris has spent 10,000 days in prison for a crime he did not commit is little more than legal kidnapping.”

    Check out CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" (Sundays 9pm ET/PT) for a deeper look into this case.
  • 33 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
    Florida Department of Corrections
  • NAME: Manuel Valle
    STATE: Florida
    EXECUTED: 9/28/11
    LAST MEAL: Fried chicken breast, white rice, garlic toast, peach cobbler and a Coca-Cola.

    Manuel Valle killed a police officer in Coral Gables, Florida, in 1978 after being stopped for a traffic violation. In the dissenting opinion of Valle v. Florida, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer stated that the inmate's long stay on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He said, "I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death."
  • 33 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
    Georgia Department of Corrections
  • NAME: Jack Alderman
    STATE: Georgia
    EXECUTED: 9/16/08
    LAST MEAL: Did not request a last meal. Ate regular prison meal of baked fish, peas, cole slaw, carrots, cheese grits, bun, fruit juice and chocolate cake.

    Jack Alderman was convicted in 1975 of killing his wife, Barbara Jean Alderman. At the time of his execution, he was the longest-serving death row prisoner who had been executed in the United States.
  • 31 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice
  • NAME: David Lee Powell
    STATE: Texas
    EXECUTED: 6/15/2010
    LAST MEAL: Four eggs, four chicken drumsticks, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tortillas, hashbrowns, garlic bread, two pork chops, white and yellow grated cheese, sliced onions and tomatoes, a pitcher of milk and a vanilla shake.

    In May 1978, Powell fatally shot 26-year-old Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo 10 times after he and his girlfriend were pulled over for missing a rear license plate. The two were on the way to a drug deal at the time of the crime. Opponents to his execution cited his exemplary behavior in prison and argued that he was no longer a threat to society, which is a legal requirement for capital punishment. Thirty-one years, three trials, and multiple appeals later, he died by lethal injection.

    He spent the longest time on death row of anyone in Texas since the state resumed death penalty executions in 1982.
  • 43 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
  • NAME: Gary Alvord
    STATE: Florida
    EXECUTED: Died of brain tumor in 2013

    In 1974, Gary Alvord was sentenced to death for strangling three women in their home in Tampa, Florida after he escaped from a mental hospital. Although Alvord faced execution several times, his history of mental illness prevented the sentence from being carried out. Last year, after 43 years on death row, he died of natural causes. In the time he spent awaiting execution, 74 other inmates were sent to their deaths. Bill Sheppard, who represented Alvord, has said: “Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill."
  • 33 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
    Death Penalty Information Center
  • NAME: Reginald Griffin
    STATE: Missouri
    CHARGES DISMISSED IN 2013

    Reginald Griffin was implicated in the 1983 stabbing death of a fellow inmate at the Moberly Correctional Center in Moberly, Missouri, where he was serving time for an armed assault conviction. He along with two other inmates were charged with capital murder in 1987. There was no physical evidence linking Griffin to the crime, and in subsequent trials, the two inmates who served as witnesses for the prosecution in were offered benefits to testify. In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court found that the state had withheld critical evidence and overturned Griffin's conviction. In 2013, all charges were dismissed. Upon his release, Cindy Short, one of his attorneys, said: "We humans are flawed, and those flaws have led to wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions and, unfortunately, this situation where time and time again you see prosecutors holding onto cases, even when evidence of innocence is clear."
  • 36 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
    AP
  • NAME: Michael Selsor
    STATE: Oklahoma
    EXECUTED: 5/1/12
    LAST MEAL: Kentucky Fried Chicken’s crispy two breast and one wing meal with potato wedges and baked beans, a chicken thigh, apple turnover, two biscuits and honey, salt, pepper and ketchup.

    In 1975, Michael Selsor shot gas-station clerk Clayton Chandler six times during a robbery in Tulsa, Oklahoma along with his accomplice, Richard Eugene Dodson. Although he was tried by a jury and sentenced to death in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court and Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the death penalty unconstitutional later that year. Selsor's conviction was overturned by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996; however, his 1998 retrial ended in another death sentence. After 36 years, Selsor was executed in Oklahoma by lethal injection.

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