Despite a judge’s order declaring them innocent and freeing them after almost 31 years, prison officials insisted that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown remain in their custody Tuesday for one final night behind bars.
The packed courtroom erupted in applause and tears after Superior Court Judge Doug Sasser ordered them freed.
McCollum did not even smile afterward, his face beaded and his dress shirt dappled with sweat, his hands still cuffed and legs in chains.
“I thank God for the strength to carry me through 31 years,” McCollum said.
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Leon Brown allowed himself a broad smile, saying he was “feeling real good right now.”
The brothers were kept apart on Tuesday and did not talk with or touch each other.
They will face a bewildering and difficult time, having 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 where guards told them when to wake, dress, eat, shower and sleep.
Prison officials said McCollum and Brown needed to be processed before being freed. McCollum spent Tuesday in Central Prison in Raleigh, and Brown was returned to Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County.
For decades, the crime they were convicted of has been known as a horror show of young men gone wild, gang-raping an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie, and killing her by stuffing her panties down her throat with a stick.
The brothers were ordered freed after the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission found DNA evidence tying the killing to Roscoe Artis, 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.
Prosecutors had argued at trials in the 1980s and 1990s that the killer left a cigarette at the crime scene. Recent DNA tests of that cigarette found Artis’ DNA on it.
Sharon Stellato of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission testified Tuesday that Artis, who is in prison in Warren County, told her in several interviews that Brown and McCollum were innocent.
“If the police would have done their job, then Leon and Henry wouldn’t be in prison,” Stellato quoted Artis as saying.
Artis did not confess to Stellato. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said he will decide whether to charge Artis after reviewing the commission’s file.
McCollum was 19 and Brown 15 when they were arrested in Red Springs, a small town in Robeson, a poor county on the South Carolina border with a long history of violence and tense relations between whites, blacks and Lumbee Indians. The district attorney who put them on death row, Joe Freeman Britt, no relation to the current DA, was listed in Guinness World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor,” responsible for the most death sentences in the United States.
The main evidence against the brothers was two detailed confessions, written in longhand by law enforcement and signed by each brother.
The other two men cited in the confession were never prosecuted; one was in another town that night and there was no evidence against the fourth.
McCollum and Brown have said they were coerced into confessing.
Johnson Britt, the district attorney, said Tuesday that the DNA evidence destroyed the case against the brothers and supported their exoneration.
“Time and time again, confessions have proven to be insufficient and at times inaccurate,” Britt said.
Before agreeing to their release, Britt read aloud the ethics rules governing prosecutors.
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate,” Britt said. “The prosecutor’s duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”
Britt said his decision was stressful, given that Sabrina’s slaying was the most notorious in the modern history of Robeson County, and perhaps of North Carolina. He remembered fellow law students at Campbell University missing class to attend the trial about “the little girl who had her underwear stuffed down her throat.”
After a six-hour hearing in the Robeson County courthouse, Sasser, a judge from nearby Columbus County, read his order from the bench, throwing out their convictions, declaring them innocent and ordering their immediate release.
Original prosecutor stunned
Joe Freeman Britt, who prosecuted the brothers in 1984, said he was stunned by the outcome.
“It’s a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” said Britt. “That case was fought with powerful arguments, but apparently the district attorney just threw up his hands and capitulated.”
Ken Snead, a retired SBI agent and lead investigator, said he was disappointed.
“Someone should have been called today to refute the evidence.”
But I. Beverly Lake Jr., the retired chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court who was instrumental in the creation of the innocence commission, thought Sasser’s ruling was “wonderful.”
“Justice finally prevailed after 30 years,” Lake said. “But it took way too long.”
Rosie Mae Williams, aunt to McCollum and Brown, said her family never believed for a second that Brown and McCollum were guilty.
“I’ve been praying 31 years,” Williams said. “But right after the trial, the people wanted to kill them, kill them in a hurry.”