LUMBERTON, N.C. — Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released Tuesday by a judge there.
The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder at around the same time.
The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential harm from false, coerced confessions and also of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.
As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a superior court judge in Robeson County, Douglas B. Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and McCollum’s death sentence and ordering their release. The courtroom erupted into a standing ovation.
“We waited all these long years for this,” said James McCollum, the father of the man released from death row. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said.
The exoneration ends decades of legal and political battles about a case that became notorious in North Carolina and received nationwide discussion, vividly reflecting the country’s fractured views of the death penalty.
The two young defendants were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, the 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting district attorney who was later profiled by “60 Minutes” as the country’s “deadliest DA” because he sought the death penalty so often.
For death penalty supporters, the horrifying facts of the girl’s rape and murder only emphasized the justice of applying the ultimate penalty. As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers that accused a Democratic candidate of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.
In 1994, when the US Supreme Court turned down a request to review the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection. But Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in dissent, noted that McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that “this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.”
In the courtroom here Tuesday, the current district attorney, Johnson Britt (no relation to the original prosecutor), citing his obligation to “seek justice,” not simply gain convictions, said he would not try to reprosecute the men because the state “does not have a case.”
McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they were picked up by the police in Red Springs, a town of fewer than 4,000 people in the southern part of the state, on the night of Sept. 28, 1983. The officers were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie, 11, who had been raped and suffocated with her underwear crammed down her throat, her body left in a soybean field.
No physical evidence tied McCollum or Brown, both African-American, as was the victim, to the crime. But a local teenager cast suspicion on McCollum, who with his half brother had recently moved from New Jersey and was considered an outsider.
After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.
“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” McCollum said in a recent videotaped interview with The News & Observer. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”
After he signed a statement written in longhand by investigators, he asked, “Can I go home now?” according to an account by his defense lawyers.
Before the night was done, Brown, after being told that his half brother had confessed and facing similar threats that he could be executed if he did not cooperate, also signed a confession. Both men subsequently recanted at trial, saying their confessions had been coerced.