The 31-year nightmare that swallowed the lives of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown ended on a sticky Wednesday afternoon on a modest street here, the day after a judge declared them innocent of a brutal 1983 rape and murder.
Leon Brown, fresh from a Greene County prison, stepped from his cousin’s car, blinking in the sunlight, unsure where to go or what to do after three decades behind bars and prison guards dictating his every move.
McCollum, in a smart tweed jacket and silvery black tie instead of the bright red khakis of death row, looked intently at his brother before deliberately crossing the street.
As the two brothers hugged, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews broke into applause.
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McCollum, 50, was silent and misty-eyed. Brown, 46, smiled: “Free now. It’s over.”
For three decades, the brothers have been the poster children of young men gone wild, convicted of gang-raping an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie, and killing her by stuffing her panties down her throat with a stick.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser declared them innocent and ordered them freed. The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission had found DNA evidence tying the killing to Roscoe Artis, a sexual predator with a long history of attacking women, including a similar rape and strangulation of a young Red Springs woman one month after the arrest of Brown and McCollum.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt consented in the exoneration.
Prison is over, but freedom will certainly carry new and bewildering challenges for McCollum and Brown, who’ve been locked up their entire adult lives. Both are mentally challenged, with IQ tests scoring in the 50s or 60s. They struggle with basic reading and writing, and they have lived three decades in a world being ordered around by others.
Like exonerated inmates before them, the two entered the free world with no outreach or help from the state that imprisoned them. They will rely on family, McCollum living with his father and stepmother outside Wilmington and Brown with his sister and cousins in Fayetteville. A social worker from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation has been trying to help establish residency, locate birth certificates and line up social services.
They will likely consider reparations: a pardon of innocence from the governor could bring a maximum of $750,000 each. Other wrongfully convicted inmates have filed civil rights lawsuits that have won settlements in the millions of dollars.
A strange digital world
And the two, who entered prison in the analog age, will struggle as they parachute into a digital world.
“The only time I saw a computer is when I went to the doctor, and he showed me Google and stuff,” McCollum said as he sat with his extended family in a Fayetteville living room lined with family photos.
McCollum shook his head and smiled in disbelief as cousin Tracy O’Neal detailed her relationship with her phone.
“I can’t live without my phone,” she said. “I have it everywhere. I take it with me when I go to the bathroom, I sleep with it, I eat with it, I’d go crazy if I lost my phone.”
“Like a hobby?” McCollum asked.
“An addiction,” O’Neal said.
“How much does it cost?”
“I paid $130, but some cost $600.”
“You can keep that,” said McCollum, taken aback. “Don’t you have to keep paying money on it?”
“I pay $55 a month.”
“You can keep that.”
Priscilla McCollum, his stepmother, had some good news about the Brunswick County home where he will be staying.
“We’ve got a land phone with a cord,” she said. “Right up your alley; you’ll be comfortable.”
McCollum signaled that he had been thinking a lot about his role in the family as older brother.
“Be strong,” he told his sister, Geraldine. “Don’t cry. Whatever you read in the paper, don’t let it upset you.”
McCollum advised his brother to get off the meds prescribed by prison psychiatrists.
“I got off them. You get off that stuff and you’ll drop the weight,” McCollum told his brother. “Put your faith in God, and he’ll help you.”
Not keeping in touch
And he called some relatives to account for not keeping in touch.
“Why couldn’t you come see me? I tried to get in touch with you,” he asked his cousin Michelle Wallace.
“I couldn’t come, I’d feel so bad, death row and that,” she said.
McCollum was serious like a judge: “You could have seen Leon.”
Wallace turned her head and sort of laughed: “Now you’re making me feel bad.”
“No, you made yourself feel bad,” McCollum said, nodding intently. “I’m home now.”
Brown said his last night in prison was uneventful: Few knew he had won his freedom. He looked forward to walking to the grocery store with his sister Wednesday evening.
McCollum returned to Central Prison in Raleigh on Tuesday to a hero’s welcome. Everyone – inmates, officers, administrators – wanted to shake his hand. Peter Kuhns, a psychologist, treated him to sour cream potato chips and a honey bun.
“Everyone was clapping, everyone was really happy for me,” he said.
Tuesday night he slept in death row’s Pod 5, a soon-to-be-free man spending his last hours in prison in the 80-square-foot cell that had been his home.
For his first night in Fayetteville, McCollum had an eye on a luxury not available in prison, where showers are scheduled.
“I’m going to go home and take a long bath, McCollum said. “Then I’ll get something to eat, and I’ll go to sleep. Then I’ll wake up and see if this is real.”