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Pen pals

Student and death row inmate find a common connection through faith

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September 18, 2014

By Ashli Gerdes

Ana Nugent '15 looks over letters she has received from Henry McCollum.

Photo by Greg Becker

Ana Nugent is a College of Saint Benedict student who has been pen pals with North Carolina's longest serving inmate on death row. On Sept. 2, after serving 30 years behind bars, Henry McCollum was exonerated of his murder conviction.

Nugent first started writing to McCollum after she received a campus wide email from Br. Peter Sullivan, OSB. Sullivan was looking for students who were interested in writing letters to an inmate on death row. Nugent said she responded to Sullivan's email because, "People who are imprisoned are kind of forgotten about sometimes."

Sullivan gave Nugent an inmate's name with limited background information. Nugent knew that McCollum and his half-brother, Leon Brown, had been in prison for nearly 30 years at the time for a third-degree murder conviction, but she didn't know the details.  

"I was kind of questioning what I was doing because some of my family members and friends were like, 'You shouldn't be doing this - it's too risky,'" Nugent said. "I've always been taught that you should view others the way God would view others. Just because this person made a really, really big mistake that was amplified more than anything I'll probably ever do, doesn't mean they're still not human."

Life's chapters

Despite concerns from her loved ones, she sat down to write the first letter.

"It was really hard because ... what do I say?" Nugent said, CSB senior studying global business leadership and art from Minneapolis. "How do you start that out? It was really nerve-racking. I didn't know how to say things in a way so that I wasn't boasting and making him feel bad. That's not what I wanted to do."

When McCollum received her letter, he wrote Nugent back saying he was confused. He forgot that he had signed up to be part of the letter exchange program years ago. The two strangers introduced themselves through writing and quickly realized they had more in common than they thought. "He's very strong in his faith," Nugent said. "That's all he would write to me."

Nugent and McCollum wrote each other about twice a month. A format began to unfold after the initial letter. McCollum decided that he wanted to tell Nugent his life's story. "Each letter was a chapter of his life," Nugent said. "It was very hard to read. He had gone through some very extreme hardships growing up ... He saw death at a very young age."

McCollum started by explaining that he was born in the ghetto and moved around a lot. He painted a picture of his childhood and his teenage years. "One of his friends was shot while playing basketball," Nugent said. "By the time he was 19 he had already gone through more than what I will probably go through in my whole life."

Nugent often responded by being as positive as possible "I think since we're both from a Christian faith, a lot of our letters would be focused on praying and God ... and looking for support for that," she said.

The relationship Nugent had with McCollum made her evaluate her own life. She began to appreciate her upbringing, Benedictine values, family and her college education even more. "His life was like the luck of the draw," Nugent said. "This whole time I didn't think Henry was innocent but I had hoped he was."

Murder and death row

A year after Nugent's initial letter to McCollum, they still weren't at the point where he was explaining the details of his conviction. One of her friends decided to research the details of the case and told her about it one evening.

"It was very gruesome," Nugent said of the kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983. "I had a huge breakdown. I wrote my deacon at my home parish asking if I was doing the right thing."

Her deacon at St. Charles Church in Minneapolis encouraged her to keep writing to McCollum. "He helped me push forward," Nugent said. "It's one of our Catholic values, to visit the imprisoned or console the inconsolable."

Despite the horrific details of the case, McCollum maintained his innocence. "I think there was a part of me that did believe him and wanted to believe him," Nugent said.

Nugent had been writing to McCollum for roughly two years before she started to wonder how long the communication would go on. "Will I be writing him for the rest of my life ... and his life?"

New evidence

In May, McCollum wrote saying there was new DNA evidence found on a cigarette butt from the crime scene and he was hopeful it might prove his innocence.

"I was almost in disbelief," Nugent said. "I was like, 'I bet it's not going to turn out.' How often do these things turn out?"

On Sept. 3 she opened her email and saw a national news headline with McCollum's name in it. "I jumped out of bed and screamed," Nugent said. McCollum and his half-brother were exonerated of the murder conviction. She called the North Carolina prison.

"They said, 'He was the happiest man walking out of here this morning,'" Nugent said. "It's just so crazy ... The prisoner I was writing walked out of death row, alive!"

Moving forward

McCollum was 19 years old when he went into prison. He's 50 now. Nugent and her family are working on mobilizing an initiative to help McCollum and his half-brother get back on their feet.

"There's some brainstorming going on," Nugent said. "I hope to organize something with the college and have a collection for Henry at Mass." Nugent's family also wants to start a collection at their parish for McCollum and his brother.

Nugent hasn't been able to get in touch with McCollum since he has been out of prison but his attorney has said McCollum will be in contact soon. "I would not be opposed to meeting him ... I never thought that day would even be possible," Nugent said.