thanks goodness for the Innocence Project. These men lost most of their lives locked up for something they didn't do.
I used to have a strong hate for District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt.
LUMBERTON, NC— 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“If the police would have done their job, then Leon and Henry wouldn’t be in prison,” Stellato quoted Artis as saying.
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.
Britt, the district attorney, said Tuesday that the DNA evidence
destroyed the case against the brothers and supported their exoneration.
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
Joe Freeman Britt, who prosecuted the brothers in 1984, said he was stunned by the outcome.
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.”
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.”