Investigations

Gov. McCrory still reviewing pardon for brothers

Henry McCollum and his half brother, Leon Brown, are happy to be out of prison, but the adjustment to life on the outside has been hard.
Henry McCollum and his half brother, Leon Brown, are happy to be out of prison, but the adjustment to life on the outside has been hard. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory is still reviewing the pardon application submitted Sept. 11 by Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who spent three decades in prison before being declared innocent and freed in September, according to a spokesman Monday.

McCollum and Brown were featured in a Sunday story in The News & Observer detailing their struggles to adapt to the outside world after 30 years in prison.

The men, who are half-brothers and who are intellectually disabled, were each given $45 in cash when they left prison in September - the sum total of help they have received from the state. They live in Fayetteville with their sister, who struggles to pay the rent and keep the light and water bills paid. They have depended on the kindness of supporters for all their money.

A Superior Court judge declared them innocent in September. North Carolina law authorizes payment of $50,000 a year, up to a maximum of $750,000, to incarcerated individuals later proven innocent. But the brothers first need to obtain a pardon of innocence from the governor.

"Yesterday, I was heartened to see the convictions of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown vacated by the court," McCrory said in a Sept. 4 press release. "My office has a process in place to review applications for pardons of innocence. If they apply, we will begin reviewing their applications as soon as they are received."

Lawyers for the two men submitted the 6-page joint application for a pardon of innocence on Sept. 11.

McCrory's office did not respond to requests for comments on the status of the pardon ahead of Sunday's article. On Monday, McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis replied by text message: "We are still in the process of reviewing the requests." Ellis said they would have no further comment.

In 1984, a Robeson County jury convicted the two of gang-raping an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie, and killing her by stuffing her panties down her throat with a stick.

They were awarded new trials in the early 1990s; McCollum was again sentenced to death, and Brown received a life sentence. Further appeals were fruitless.

In 2010, a fellow inmate helped Brown apply to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, the nation's only independent commission with the power to declare innocence.

After years of investigation, commission staffers delivered a bombshell in July: The DNA on a cigarette butt at the crime scene matched Roscoe Artis, a sexual predator with a long history of attacking women, including the similar rape and strangulation of a young Red Springs woman one month after the arrest of Brown and McCollum.

With the support of Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, a Superior Court judge threw out their convictions and the charges, and declared them innocent.

Brown and McCollum have been waiting ever since. Waiting for their Medicaid application to be approved, for their pardon to be granted, for their lives to start anew.

The article brought an outpouring of support with at least 20 readers inquiring how they could help the brothers.

"My husband and I just read your heartbreaking front-page story about Henry McCollum and Leon Brown," wrote Bridget Booher of Hillsborough. "We are saddened and dismayed at their continued mistreatment by the state. Would you let us know how we might be able to help?"

Tonza Rhem-Watson wrote that she was appalled. "This is truly a shame and disgrace that any human being should be treated with such total disregard."

A fund to help the brothers was set up in September by lawyers at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which can be reached at 919-956-9545 or CDPL 123 W. Main St. Durham NC 27701.

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