Two half-brothers today walked free from death row – thirty years after they were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were cleared by DNA evidence yesterday, three decades after they were found guilty of the raping Sabrina Buie and suffocating her with her own underwear near Greenville, North Carolina in 1984.
Their alleged crime was even held up by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an example of why he supported the death penalty.
But on Tuesday McCollum and Brown’s convictions were overturned after another man’s DNA was found on a cigarette butt that was left near the crime scene.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser said the new DNA results contradicted the case prosecutors put forward at the men’s trials.
Defense attorneys have also argued that testimony used against the brothers were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time and Brown was 15.
The local police force is also accused of concealing boxes of evidence connected to the killing for decades.
Henry McCollum, Brown’s half-brother, was 19 at the time Sabrina Buie was found raped and murdered in 1983
McCollum, 50, hugged his weeping parents at the gates of Central Prison in Raleigh today. His half brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown, was later freed from Maury Correctional Institution near Greenville, where he had been serving a life sentence.
‘I knew one day I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn’t know when that time was going to be,’ McCollum said.
‘I just thank God that I am out of this place. There’s not anger in my heart. I forgive those people and stuff. But I don’t like what they done to me and my brother because they took 30 years away from me for no reason. But I don’t hate them. I don’t hate them one bit.”
Through his attorney, Brown declined to be interviewed following his release.
Prison: In a June 10, 1987 photo, Leon Brown sits in the day room of his Death Row cell block in Raleigh, NC’s Central Prison. On Tuesday, lawyers said DNA analysis of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene link it to a man serving a life sentence for a similar rape and killing.
During his long years on death row, McCollum watched 42 men he describes as brothers make their last walk to the nearby death chamber to receive lethal injections. If not for a series of lawsuits that has blocked any executions in North Carolina since 2006, McCullum would have likely been put to death years ago.
He often lay awake at night in his solitary cell, thinking of the needle.
‘I’d toss and turn at night, trying to sleep,” he said. “Cause I thought … these people was going to kill me.’
Upon his release, McCollum expressed his belief that there are still other innocent men on the inside. He is at least the seventh death row inmate freed in North Carolina since 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
‘It’s very painful when you are attached to somebody like a brother or family, and you see that person on his last days,’ McCollum said. ‘A lot of them don’t really want to die. … And it hurt me the most to see the state take somebody’s life, when they are committing murder their own self. But they don’t see it that way.’
McCollum said he won’t allow himself to focus on the past, on all the life in the outside world he missed. He plans to someday work with young people, to try to keep as many as he can from ever ending up inside a prison.
The men’s freedom hinged largely on the local prosecutor’s acknowledgement of the strong evidence of their innocence.
‘The evidence you heard today in my opinion negates the evidence presented at trial,’ Johnson Britt, the Robeson County district attorney, said during a closing statement before the judge announced his decision. Britt was not the prosecutor of the men.
Even if the men were granted a new trial, Britt said: ‘Based upon this new evidence, the state does not have a case to prosecute.’
Minutes later, Sasser made his ruling.