At 9:10 p.m. on Sept. 28, 1983, a sheriff’s detective knocked on the door of Henry McCollum’s home and invited the 19-year-old to the Red Springs Police Department for questioning. An hour and a half later, his brother, Leon Brown, and their mother went to the station to see what was taking so long.
Within a few hours, agents had in hand a five-page murder confession from McCollum detailing how he and three other teenagers had gang-raped an 11-year-old girl in a Robeson County bean field and then jammed her panties down her throat with a stick.
By dawn, agents had in hand a similar confession from Brown, 15. Police wrote the confessions in longhand; Brown and McCollum signed each page.
Those two confessions, the only evidence against the brothers, have kept them locked up for the past 30 years, 11 months and two days. Both men are mentally disabled; McCollum with an IQ in the 60s, Brown scoring as low as 49. McCollum and Brown have said they were bullied and tricked into confessing. They have maintained their innocence of the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
No one in authority believed them: police, prosecutors, jurors, judges. Even McCollum’s lawyers at his second trial browbeat him to admit guilt.
Brown and McCollum finally have the evidence strong enough to refute their 1983 confessions. The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission has unearthed DNA evidence showing the killer was a sexual predator with a lengthy criminal history, including a similar rape and murder in Red Springs one month after the arrest of Brown and McCollum.
The brothers are scheduled to appear Tuesday in the Robeson County courthouse, where defense lawyers will ask a judge to free them both. District Attorney Johnson Britt is not opposing the request.
“The whole case rests on the confessions,” Britt said, “and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”
The saga of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown has been one of the most notorious criminal cases in North Carolina history. U.S. Supreme Court justices, while deciding not to hear McCollum’s case, traded barbs about wild teen killers. The Republican Party used McCollum in scary campaign mailings.
And despite a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years, the case raises many questions: How common are false confessions? How many inmates have boxes of evidence hidden from them for decades? How does the justice system treat the mentally disabled? Were the brothers put on death row because of police and prosecutorial tunnel vision, or something worse? How many innocent inmates languish in the state’s penal system?
The story of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown is well-documented in court files, police records and evidence recently uncovered by the Innocence Inquiry Commission. It is a stark tale of a prosecution gone wrong.
Fingerprint on a can
The brothers were born in Jersey City, N.J., where their mother, Mamie Brown, had migrated from Robeson County. The boys were reared by their grandmother in the Montgomery Garden housing project in Jersey City. Schools identified each boy as mentally challenged early on; both went to special education classes.
McCollum was reading at a second-grade level when he dropped out of school. Brown could barely read or write. By 1983, the brothers had moved back to Robeson County with their mother.
On Sept. 25, Ronnie Buie, a textile worker, filled a missing persons report for his 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina. A family friend found her body in a soybean field, nude except for a bra pushed up on her neck. Bruises and scrapes on the girl’s back showed she had been dragged into the field. Police found evidence in a nearby field: bloodstained sticks and a plywood board, a cigarette butt and three beer cans. One can had Sabrina Buie’s fingerprint.
Another had a fingerprint that did not match McCollum or Brown.
Police canvassed Red Springs. On the evening of Sept. 28, State Bureau of Investigation agent Ken Snead and Robeson County Sheriff’s detective Ken Sealey interviewed a 17-year-old girl who said she heard at school that Henry McCollum was the killer, and that two other men may have been involved. The girl said she heard that McCollum had robbed a pimp in Jersey City and had tried to rape a local girl a year ago.
Within hours, three officers were interrogating McCollum: Snead, Sealey and Leroy Allen of the SBI . Snead wrote out the confession in longhand, and McCollum signed it.
The written confession was horrifying. Four young men – Darrell Suber, Chris Brown, Leon Brown and McCollum – took the girl into the woods, it said. The confession said they stripped off her shoes, pants and panties, held her down and took turns raping her vaginally and anally. Worried that she would tell police, Suber said, “We’ve got to kill her to keep her from telling the cops on us.”
Chris Brown took a stick and shoved Buie’s panties down her throat with a stick until she suffocated, according to the confession, which was replete with details known only to someone familiar with the crime scene. They left three empty 16-ounce Schlitz Bull Malt Liquor cans in the field. Buie wore a white shirt with a flower on it. Chris Brown smoked Newports in the field.
When the interrogation ended at 2:30 a.m., McCollum started to walk out of the police station. Asked where he was going, McCollum said police told him he could leave when the interview was over.
Around 7 a.m., Leon Brown signed all seven pages of a similar confession in a labored block print.
‘Yelling and screaming at me’
For the past three decades, McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence. Both say they didn’t know what they were signing.
“I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said in a recent interview at Central Prison. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.”
Snead, the lead investigator who interrogated McCollum, is now retired. He said he believes that the confessions are true.
“We didn’t have a cause of death, and McCollum and Brown both told me they took a stick and juked the panties up and down her throat,” Snead said in an interview Thursday. “Only someone who committed the crime would know that.”
Allen, one of the SBI agents present during McCollum’s interview, had led the investigation of the crime scene and had attended the autopsy the day before.
Four days after the confessions, the 17-year-old who provided the original tip told police she had no personal knowledge that McCollum was the killer; she only suspected it because McCollum didn’t act right, riding a bicycle around staring at people, mostly women.
‘God got your judgment’
At trial, McCollum and Brown faced District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, a dogged, flamboyant courtroom showman keen on quoting the Bible and flaunting the bloody clothes of murder victims before jurors.
Guinness World Records listed Britt as the world’s deadliest prosecutor, responsible for more death sentences than any other. (He is not related to current District Attorney Johnson Britt.)
When McCollum took the stand, Joe Freeman Britt steamrolled him. The older brother was a confusing and bumbling witness, often contradicting himself or failing to understand basic questions.
But McCollum is proud of one thing about the 1984 trial: He never wavered under the red-hot cross examination of the world’s deadliest prosecutor.
McCollum denied guilt and recanted the confession 226 times as Britt worked through the confession word by word.
“Did you tell him, ‘Sabrina started hollering, ‘Mommy, Mommy’? ” Britt asked. “Did you tell him that?”
“No,” McCollum said.
“Didn’t that touch your soul at all when that little girl was down on the ground hollering?”
“It didn’t touch my soul because I didn’t kill nobody.”
“It doesn’t touch your soul now, does it?”
“Because I ain’t killed nobody. I want to tell you something, Joe Freeman, God got your judgment right in hell waiting for you.”
When the judge admonished him for wanting to the leave the witness stand, McCollum was quick with a response: “Do you feel how I feel, to get hanged in the courtroom for something I didn’t do?”
Britt later described his closing argument on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in a segment dubbed “The Deadliest DA.”
“I asked (the jury) to time with me five minutes, and I just sat down. I asked them, if they wanted to, to try to hold their breath as long as they could and to think about, to do – to do the things that the law required them to do – that is, reflect upon and analyze and think about the facts of the case, to think about the little girl in the woods and, what horrible experiences she had there, how they sodomized her and raped her and kicked her and beat her and cursed her, all the time her begging for mommy.
“It was a long five minutes.”
Many coerced confessions
A confession is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence a prosecutor can put before a jury. After all, who in their right mind would give a detailed confession to a crime he did not commit?
Quite a few, it turns out.
Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor, has analyzed all 317 cases of people proven innocent by DNA in the U.S. Sixty-three cases – 18 percent – involved false confessions. Trial transcripts, police files and court records show that in almost all the false confessions, the accused gave rich detailed evidence about the crime, not just flat proclamations of “I did it.” In most cases, investigating officers – knowingly or inadvertently – provide details to the suspects.
There are three big risk factors for false confessions, Garrett said. The cases of Brown and McCollum have all three.
The brothers are mentally disabled. Many studies have shown how the mentally disabled are susceptible to pressure and stress and tend to be submissive and eager to please those in authority. Youth is a similar risk factor; juveniles are similarly vulnerable to pressure or coercion from authority figures.
And there is no video or audio recording of the interrogation.
“It’s extremely troubling that nothing is documented as to what exactly these men said to police,” Garrett said. “They should be able to describe what they did.”
The confessions had a glaring weakness baked into them: Prosecutors never brought charges against the two alleged ringleaders, Darrell Suber and Chris Brown. Police had no evidence to bring charges.
A death row friend
Brown and McCollum were the youngest people on death row, both physically and mentally, according to Sonny Craig, a death row inmate who acted as a mentor and minister. Craig took the brothers under his wing and told other inmates that he was their protector. At 16, Leon Brown was the youngest person on death row.
“They both have a child’s mind,” Craig said in a recent interview. “They are both very, very slow.”
Craig said he suspected that another death row inmate, Roscoe Artis, was the guilty party. Artis was convicted of the rape and murder of 16-year-old Joann Brockmann, whose naked, beaten body was found in Red Springs one month after Brown and McCollum were arrested.
Artis was convicted in Robeson County one month before McCollum and Brown went to trial. Joe Freeman Britt was the prosecutor, and Artis was represented by the same lawyer who would represent McCollum, Earl Strickland.
Artis often spoke about the murder of Sabrina Buie, Craig said, on death row and later at Warren Correctional Institution.
“He had to talk with somebody he could trust, to get it off his chest,” Craig said. “He kept telling me, ‘I know those boys aren’t guilty.’ I told him, ‘If they aren’t guilty, why don’t you come forth?’ He didn’t say nothing but, ‘I’ve got to go. I’ve got somewhere to go,’ and he’d leave my cell.”
In 1988, the state Supreme Court ordered new trials for McCollum and Brown.
McCollum was appointed two experienced death-penalty lawyers, Jim Fuller and Marshall Dayan. The lawyers, believing the jury would want to blame someone for the vicious murder, decided McCollum should admit guilt in hopes of getting a second-degree murder conviction.
McCollum insisted he was innocent. In a 1995 affidavit, Dayan said he met with McCollum 10 times before trial, trying to get him to admit guilt. McCollum refused each time.
On the day before trial, Dayan and Fuller ratcheted up the pressure, telling McCollum his confession could be the difference between life and death, and that he needed to confess to Faye Sultan, their expert psychologist.
“I have used the word ‘coerced’ to describe how we pressured Henry into adopting our view of the trial,” Dayan said. “It is an accurate one.”
In an affidavit, Sultan said McCollum was “particularly susceptible to approval seeking and persuasion when interacting with authority figures,” but he had always insisted on his innocence. She was perplexed when, on the eve of his 1991 trial, he gave her disjointed, confused and inconsistent “confessions.” He was under extreme stress and showed signs of deepening depression.
The jury found McCollum guilty and returned him to death row.
At Brown’s 1992 retrial, a judge threw out the murder charge and gave him a life sentence for rape. After the state Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1995, Brown had effectively exhausted his appeals.
Little happened in their cases for the next 15 years.
Brown said he has spent the years in a half-dozen state prisons, walking, learning to read and watching news and sports on television. For years he was able to make an annual visit to Central Prison to see his brother through steel bars, but that ended two years ago. They have written to each other monthly.
For McCollum, death row has meant watching friends led off to execution – 42 since he entered Central Prison in 1984.
“I’m tired,” McCollum said. “I don’t know when they are going to kill me.”
Delivering a bombshell
In 2010, a fellow inmate told Brown about the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which in February 2010 had declared Greg Taylor innocent of a 1993 murder – the country’s first exoneration by an independent commission. Brown wrote the commission and received a form in the mail.
The same inmate filled out the form and mailed it. In a recent interview, Brown said he did not know the name of the inmate who helped him.
The application prompted the commission to begin an investigation.
Commission staffers declined to discuss the case. But the commission staff has conducted an exhaustive investigation, according to Johnson Britt and defense lawyers.
In July, commission staffers delivered a bombshell: The DNA on the Newport cigarette butt at the crime scene matched Roscoe Artis. They also compiled Artis’ lengthy record as a sexual predator.
Artis, with previous convictions for attempted rape, moved to his sister’s house in Red Springs in 1983. At the time, there was a warrant out for his arrest for the 1980 rape and murder of Bernice Moss in Gastonia. Moss’ killing resembled those of both Sabrina and Brockmann; nude except for a shirt and bra, Moss had been beaten with a stick, and something was lodged in her throat. After Artis was on death row, charges in the Moss murder were dropped.
Given the murder of Brockmann in Red Springs, Artis’ criminal history, and that he lived with his sister next to the soybean field where Sabrina’s body was found, why wasn’t he a suspect in Sabrina’s murder?
“That’s a good question, and it’s a question I don’t have an answer for,” said Johnson Britt, the current district attorney.
Joe Freeman Britt, now retired, said Friday he has no doubts the confessions are genuine and the men are guilty: “None. None.”
Britt said he doesn’t put much stock in DNA exonerations.
“You find a cigarette, you say it has Roscoe Artis’ DNA on it, but so what?” Britt said. “It’s just a cigarette, and absent some direct connection to the actual killing, what have you got? Do you have exoneration? I don’t think so.”
The Innocence Inquiry Commission investigation also turned up hidden evidence. Three days before McCollum and Brown went on trial in 1984, the Red Springs police requested that the SBI examine the unidentified fingerprint on the beer can to see if it matched Roscoe Artis.
The SBI never did the work.
The police request was evidence that Artis was a suspect in the case. Britt said it was a “bad violation” of Supreme Court rulings that require prosecutors to hand over all helpful evidence to defendants.
Earlier this month, a commission investigator found a box of evidence in the Red Springs Police Department, despite repeated claims by the department in 2010 that it had none. The box contained fingernail clippings from Sabrina, a beer can, hair samples, swabs and other potential sources of DNA evidence.
McCollum, now 50, said he was devastated to learn about Artis. They had become close during their time in the Robeson jail and on death row.
“He was like a father to me,” McCollum said.
Brown, 46, struggled to explain his feelings about Artis or the possibility of freedom after 30 years.
But on Monday, he engaged in what may have been his first optimistic act in decades: He threw out all the letters from his brother.
“To keep from having a lot of mail toting with me when I leave.”