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NC half brothers freed after 3 decades in prison


RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - 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."

Through his attorney, Brown declined to be interviewed following his release.

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.

2 Murder Convicts Exonerated 30 Years After False Confession

"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 butt pointed to another man who lived near the soybean field where Buie's body was found in Robeson County. That man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.

The men's freedom hinged largely on the new local prosecutor's acknowledgement of the strong evidence of their innocence.

Even if the men were granted a new trial, Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said: "Based upon this new evidence, the state does not have a case to prosecute."

The day-long evidence hearing included testimony from Sharon Stellato. The associate director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission discussed three interviews she had over the summer with the 74-year-old inmate whose DNA matched that found on the cigarette butt. He was convicted of assaulting three other women and is 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 changed his story about knowing the girl. But later he told them he saw her 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 said weather records show it didn't rain the night Buie went missing or the next day.

Stellato also said the man repeatedly told her McCollum and Brown are innocent, but still denied involvement in the killing.

The DNA from cigarette butts found at the crime scene doesn't match McCollum or Brown, and fingerprints taken from a beer can aren't theirs either, attorneys say.

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

The young men were not from wealthy families and their loved ones quickly exhausted their ability to pay for their legal defense. The case was taken up by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm that provides direct representation to inmates on North Carolina's death row.

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.

But first, he has a lot of learn about a world that has changed dramatically during the three decades he has been away. McCollum hasn't never accessed the Internet, or owned a cellphone. He looked ill at ease Wednesday in a tie and white dress shirt, the collar at least an inch too large. Inmates on death row all wear bright red jumpsuits, indicating their status as convicted murders.

Climbing into his father's car, he put his head through the loop of the seatbelt that is supposed to cross the chest. He had never used one like it. A TV cameraman had to help him buckle it.

"Right now I want to go home and take a hot bath," McCollum said. "I want to see how that tub feel. And eat. I want to eat. I want to go to sleep and wake up the next day and see all this is real."

Join the discussion

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ltmoose2 September 03 2014 at 3:17 PM

And this folks, is why there is a HUGE problem with the death penalty.

Flag Reply +48 rate up
12 replies
fulltruckloads September 03 2014 at 3:31 PM

I see a huge lawsuit in the works!!! No amount of money can give these men their time back that was taken away, but it will help them with the rest of their lives.

Flag Reply +37 rate up
3 replies
ohogwash September 03 2014 at 3:52 PM

Death penalty from 5 yrs and back should all be subject to DNA testing of evidence before execution. chances are 5 yrs to now DNA was used to convict. How many others are in prison for over zealous police, lawyers and judges because they wanted their speedy trial to clear their case load and look good in the publics eyes. Why aren't the cops who falsely put these two behind bars now standing in front of a judge and facing perjury charges themselves ?

Flag Reply +33 rate up
8 replies
faithta September 03 2014 at 3:24 PM

Justice finally served after 30 years. I don't think we'll get many comments from the "haters" today....lol

Flag Reply +18 rate up
5 replies
tonyjuicey1 September 03 2014 at 4:23 PM

I am sure race had EVERYTHING to do with the conviction. The prosecutor still failing to admit fault. A new law should read if you prosecute someone and want to send them to prison for life if you are wrong you pay the cost a life for a life. The same should be done with death sentences. Prosecutors do not have an incentive to get it right. Their incentive is to win at all cost and the majority of wins (98%) are plea deals.
The goal of a prosecutor is judgeship, politician or million dollar law firm. There has to be a stop gap.

Flag Reply +16 rate up
6 replies
justme1234c September 03 2014 at 3:24 PM

glad they are home now. Best of happiness to you both!

Flag Reply +15 rate up
Rick September 03 2014 at 4:37 PM

Justice in the United States says," If the person is black they are guilty."
The white D.A. wants to be elected to a higher office so some black person is going to jail, guilty or not, because he/she needs a conviction to pad their resume.

Flag Reply +15 rate up
9 replies
piknplundr September 03 2014 at 3:53 PM

DNA is a good thing if you are innocent. I don't know that I would be so forgiving as this guy after 30 years. I hope he can be for his own sake but that is a very tall order.

Flag Reply +15 rate up
2 replies
Ms. Corrine piknplundr September 03 2014 at 5:51 PM

If these men don't forgive, they will never be able to move ahead. Forgiveness is not for the ones that did it to them, it's for them.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
Charlotte Ms. Corrine September 03 2014 at 8:03 PM

Ms. Corrine you have that completely correct. Forgiveness is for them!

Flag +1 rate up
Karen piknplundr September 03 2014 at 11:03 PM

You have to forgive -- not for them, but for your own health and well being.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Mark September 03 2014 at 3:24 PM

Why no comments from the right wing about justice. Just "ooops?"

Flag Reply +13 rate up
8 replies
Old Curmudgeon September 03 2014 at 3:42 PM

" McCollum hasn't never accessed the Internet,"

Again very poor syntax and mangling the English Language from AOL. A double-negative would have gotten me in deep trouble in the 3rd grade!

Flag Reply +11 rate up
7 replies
aol~~ 1209600


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