Here’s What It Feels Like to Be Exonerated

*Originally published on RYOT.org on June 8th, 2015 by Sean Sawyer*

After 31 years in prison, half-brothers Henry Lee McCollum, 51, and Leon Brown, 47, were released from prison in September following new DNA evidence exonerating them of their alleged rape and murder of an 11 year old girl. On Thursday, the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, officially pardoned the brothers on all of their alleged crimes.

“I was upstairs in my room, because I wanted to be by myself when I hear,” Brown said in an interview with The New York Times after hearing that he would be officially pardoned by the state. “Well, when he said it, right, tears start coming from my eyes. Tears of joy. And my sister, she ran upstairs. When she had hugged me, right, I had laid my head on her shoulder, crying. I couldn’t stop crying, you know? It felt — it felt good.”

The pardons qualify each man for $50,000 from the state for every year they were imprisoned, with a limit of $750,000 each.

“It ain’t about money,” said Henry Lee McCollum. “It was about just being able to see that I was innocent of a crime I was charged with. It was just a blessing to be out here, to live a normal life.”

The justice system that had failed them was finally brought to light and these innocent men were finally freed. They have a new perspective on life, wanting to live it to the fullest. Brown has plans to get his driver’s license in the near future, something that he missed out on during his incarceration. The brother’s optimism about the future is uplifting and inspires hope for innocent men and women wrongfully imprisoned.

However, not all of these stories have a happy ending.

In May, Alex Smith shared the story of Kalief Browder’s hellish three years at Rikers Island for stealing a backpack at the young age of 16. With his family unable to pay the $10,000 bond, Browder spent these three years waiting a conviction hearing while being subject to violence from both officers and inmates. Browder slipped into a deep depression and tried to end his life many times in prison.

Six months after his release, Browder tried to kill himself again in November of 2013.

But Browder found new optimism with the help of friends, family, and celebrities. He started to work hard at Bronx Community College that was financed by an anonymous donor.

But this would not last.

On Saturday, Kalief Browder killed himself by hanging himself outside of his bedroom window only to be discovered dead by his mother. He was 22.

Presidential nominee Rand Paul had shared Browder’s story in the past highlighting some of the flaws in the American justice system. On Saturday, Paul spoke in Concord, New Hampshire sharing his condolences for Kalief and his family. “So when you see people and you see some of this anger at people in the streets and you’re like, ‘Why are they so unhappy?’ Think about Kalief Browder and think about how his friends must feel about American justice, how his parents must feel and about how his community feels. If we become the party that cares about the Sixth Amendment as much as we do the Second Amendment, we’re going to dominate.”

“When you go over the three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teenager in New York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!” Browder’s attorney, Paul Prestia, preaches.

Browder’s tragic story has brought an overall greater awareness to the justice system. In April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Judge Jonathan Lippman announced Justice Reboot. This program’s initiative plans to speed up the city’s courts so that fewer people will have to experience the traumas that Kalief Browder was forced to.

Hopefully, McCollum and Brown can live life to the fullest after their incarceration, something that Browder was unable to.

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