2 NC men's convictions overturned in 1983 killing

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Judge overturns NC men's convictions - updated 9/3
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2 NC men's convictions overturned in 1983 killing
James McCollum, facing camera, embraces his son Henry following the younger man's release from Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. Henry McCollum spent more than 30 years on death row for a rape and murder he didn't commit. McCollum's Step mother Priscilla McCollum is at left. (AP Photo/Michael Biesecker)
James McCollum walks out of prison after being released from Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. Henry McCollum spent more than 30 years on death row for a rape and murder new DNA evidence suggest may have been committed by another man. (AP Photo/Michael Biesecker)
Leon Brown is all smiles as his brother Henry McCollum is led away by guards at the Robeson County Courthouse in Lumberton, N.C. Tuesday, September 2, 2014 after judge has declared McCollum and Brown innocent of a brutal rape murder for which they have spent 30 years in prison. The brothers were convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in a soybean field near the tiny town of Red Springs. Both were being taken back to their respective facilities to be processed and released. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Leon Brown is congratulated by his attorney Ann Kirby at the Robeson County Courthouse in Lumberton, N.C. Tuesday, September 2, 2014. He and his brother Henry McCollum were declared innocent of a brutal rape murder for which they have spent 30 years in prison. The brothers were convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in a soybean field near the tiny town of Red Springs. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Robeson County prosecutor Johnson Britt stands behind Leon Brown during a break in proceedings at the Robeson County Courthouse in Lumberton, N.C. Tuesday, September 2, 2014. A judge declared Brown and his brother Henry McCollum innocent of a brutal rape murder for which they have spent 30 years in prison. The brothers were convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in a soybean field near the tiny town of Red Springs. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Henry McCollum is surrounded by guards as he sits in a Robeson County, N.C. courtroom Sept. 2, 2014. McCollum and his brother Leon Brown have spent 30 years in prison since being convicted of the rape of murder of a Robeson County girl in 1983. Both of their convictions were overturned Tuesday after the Innocence Inquiry Commission found DNA evidence showing the killer was somebody already convicted for similar crimes. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Henry McCollum wiles away tears as he sits next to his attorney Richard Johnston at the Robeson County Courthouse in Lumberton, N.C. Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. A judge has declared McCollum and his brother Leon Brown innocent of a brutal crime for which they have spent 30 years in prison. The brothers were convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in a soybean field near the tiny town of Red Springs. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Geraldine Brown, sister of Leon Brown, celebrates outside a Robeson County courtroom where her brothers were declared innocent of the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl in 1983. Imprisoned for more than 30 years, Leon Brown and Henry McCollum were exonerated by DNA evidence and ordered released in Lumberton, N.C. Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Relatives and friends of Henry McCollum get a thumbs up from him Sept. 2, 2014 as he heads back to Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., where he will be released from death row and freed. McCollum and his brother Leon Brown have spent 30 years in prison since being convicted of the rape of murder of a Robeson County girl in 1983. Both of their convictions were overturned. McCollum is the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina's death row. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
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By JONATHAN DREW

LUMBERTON, N.C. (AP) - A North Carolina judge overturned the convictions Tuesday of two men who have served 30 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl after another man's DNA was recently discovered on evidence in the case.

Superior Court Judge Douglass Sasser ordered the immediate release of Henry McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46. The half brothers were convicted in the 1983 slaying of Sabrina Buie in Robeson County.

Lawyers for the men petitioned for their release after DNA evidence from a cigarette butt recovered at the crime scene pointed to another man. That man, who lived close to the soybean field where the dead girl's body was found, is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.

Family members for the men gasped and some sobbed as the judge announced his decision to the packed courtroom. Brown smiled and shook a defense lawyer's hand and McCollum looked spent and relieved

"We waited years and years," said James McCollum, Henry's father. "We kept the faith."

It was not immediately clear how soon the men will walk free. Procedure requires that they return to the prisons where they have been serving time before they can be processed out.

McCollum has been housed for decades on North Carolina's death row at Central Prison in Raleigh. Brown is assigned to Maury Correctional Institution, a high security prison in Greene County.

Keith Acree, spokesman for the state prison system, said it would likely be at least Wednesday before the required paperwork is in order and the men are released.

Sasser ruled after a day-long evidence hearing during which Sharon Stellato, the associate director North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, testified about three interviews she had over the summer with the 74-year-old inmate now suspected of killing Buie. The Associated Press does not generally disclose the names of criminal suspects unless they are charged.

According to Stellato, the inmate said at first he didn't know Buie. But in later interviews, the man said the girl would come to his house and buy cigarettes for him, Stellato said.

The man also told them he saw the girl the night she went missing and gave her a coat and hat because it was raining, Stellato said. He told the commission that's why his DNA may have been at the scene.

Stellato also said the man repeatedly told her McCollum and Brown are innocent.

Still, he denied involvement in the killing, Stellato said. He told the commission that the girl was alive when she left his house and that he didn't see her again. He told the commission that he didn't leave the house because it was raining and he had to work the next day.

Stellato said weather records show it didn't rain the night Buie went missing or the next day.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt acknowledged the DNA discovery in court papers. He said evidence from the original trial is being tested again and he hasn't decided whether he retry McCollum and Brown.

Buie was found in a rural soybean field, naked except for a bra pushed up against her neck. A short distance away, police found two bloody sticks and a cigarette butt.

Authorities said McCollum, who was 19 at the time, and Brown, who was 15, confessed to killing Buie.

Attorneys said both men have low IQs and their confessions were coerced after hours of questioning. There is no physical evidence connecting them to the crime.

Both were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row, where he remains, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.

The DNA from the cigarette butts doesn't match either of them, and fingerprints taken from a beer can at the scene aren't theirs either. The other man now suspected in Buie's killing was convicted of assaulting three other women over 30 years before his last conviction.

Lawyers for the two men said the new testing leaves no doubt about their clients' innocence.

Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, has represented Henry McCollum for 20 years.

"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," Rose said. "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."

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