DNA Evidence Clears North Carolina Half Brothers of Rape, Murder After 30 Years In Prison
Exculpatory DNA evidence has led a North Carolina judge to overturn the convictions of two mentally disabled half brothers who have been wrongfully imprisoned 30 years for the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl.
A Lumberton courtroom erupted in a standing ovation on Tuesday after Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser ordered the immediate release of 50-year-old Henry McCollum and his half brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown.
The men were 15 and 19 at the time of their 1983 arrest for the killing earlier that year of Sabrina Buie in Robeson county. Their convictions were based on weak evidence and highly questionable confessions they claim were coerced.
Although there was no physical evidence linking the men to the crime, Joe Freeman Britt, the Bible-quoting district attorney later called America’s “deadliest DA” by CBS 60 Minutes because of his aggressive efforts to execute defendants, successfully prosecuted them despite their innocence.
McCollum, who had been sentenced to death, has been imprisoned on death row for the past three decades. Brown was serving a life prison sentence.
“We waited years and years,” James McCollum, Henry’s father, told the Associated Press following his son’s release. “We kept the faith.”
The case against the two men collapsed after DNA evidence implicated another man, Roscoe Artis, whose possible involvement in the horrific slaying had been overlooked despite the facts that he lived just one block from the site where Buie’s body was found and that he later confessed to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for that crime.
The inmates’ attorneys petitioned for their release after DNA evidence from a cigarette butt found at the crime scene implicated Artis.
The case highlights the potential damage that false, coerced confessions can cause and the likelihood that innocent people have been executed. It is also a reminder of the faultless nature of DNA testing and its power to exonerate wrongfully convicted and imprisoned individuals.
“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” Ken Rose, one of McCollum’s lawyers and senior staff attorney at the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, told the Guardian.
“Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. He would become so distraught he had to be put in isolation. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost,” Rose added.
The McCollum-Brown case has repeatedly made national headlines. In 1994, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has stated that no innocent person has ever been executed, cited the heinous nature of Buie’s rape and murder as proof that McCollum deserved to die by lethal injection. Scalia wrote that lethal injection, which recently caused agonizing deaths in multiple botched executions, would be an “enviable” way for McCollum to die compared to what Buie endured.
The exonerated inmates, who have spent the prime of their lives behind bars, were upbeat as they tasted freedom for the first time in three decades.
“I have never stopped believing that one day I’d be able to walk out that door,” McCollum said in a videotaped interview with the Charlotte News & Observer.
“A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything,” he said. “I never got a chance to realize those dreams. Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”
According to the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, there have been 317 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. Eighteen of those exonerations involved death row inmates. The exonerated individuals served a total of more than 4,200 years behind bars; the average length of time served by the exonerees is 13.5 years.