North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate and his half-brother serving a life sentence have been exonerated and released from prison after spending more than 30 years behind bars for a rape and murder they did not commit.
Robeson County superior court acted with lightning speed to free the two men, Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, who were 15 and 19 at the time of their arrest in 1983. It was testimony to the overwhelming strength of the evidence that was presented to the court that judge Douglas Sasser cleared them of the murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie on the first day of a hearing to consider new DNA evidence in the case.
The evidence absolved McCollum and Brown, now 46 and 50, of any link to biological material collected at the crime scene. It also found a positive match with a known sex offender from the same small town who was living just feet away from the field in which Buie’s body was found.
McCollum was held on death row throughout his three decades in prison as an innocent man. His lawyer, Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, who has fought the case for the past 20 years, pointed out that both his client and Brown are diagnosed as having intellectual disabilities.
“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. 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.”
Co-counsel for Brown, Ann Kirby, said: “This case is a tragedy which has profoundly affected not only the lives of the people involved, but which profoundly affects our system of justice in North Carolina. This case highlights in a most dramatic manner the importance of finding the truth. Today truth has prevailed, but it comes 30 years too late for Sabrina Buie and her family, and for Leon, Henry, and their families. Their sadness, grief, and loss will remain with them forever.”
The dramatic release of the two prisoners now puts the spotlight on the police department in Red Springs, a small town in the south of the state of just 3,000 people. In court documents filed by lawyers for McCollum and Brown the police department is accused of having framed false confessions for the duo which they made the arrested teenagers sign after hours of interrogations.Photograph: Travis Long/AP
The town’s police force is also accused of having hidden boxes of crucial evidence in its office from the time of the boys’ trial in 1984 right up to last month. The existence of the evidence, gathered at the crime scene, was never disclosed either to the boys’ defence teams or to the district attorney prosecuting the case.
The current district attorney for Robeson County, Johnson Britt, agreed on Tuesday that the two men are innocent and consented to their unconditional release. No further charges will be brought against them.