RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate and his younger half-brother walked out as free men Wednesday, three decades after they were convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl who DNA evidence shows may have been killed by another man.
Henry McCollum, 50, hugged his weeping parents at the gates of Central Prison in Raleigh, a day after a judge ordered his release, citing the new evidence in the 1983 slaying of Sabrina Buie. 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.’’
Brown declined to be interviewed following his release, saying through his attorney he was too overwhelmed. He hugged his sister outside the prison before asking to go for a cheeseburger and milk shake.
‘‘We were just looking at each other and just smiling,’’ said Ann Kirby, one of Brown’s lawyers.
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, McCollum 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.’’
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the convictions Tuesday. He said another man’s DNA being found on a cigarette butt left near the body of the slain girl contradicted the case put forth by prosecutors.
The ruling was the latest twist in a notorious case that began with what defense attorneys said were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time, and Brown was 15. There was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime.
Defense lawyers petitioned for their release after a recent analysis from the discarded cigarette pointed to another man who lived near the Robeson County soybean field where Buie’s body was found. That man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.