RALEIGH — Pardons of innocence awarded by Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday will allow two Robeson County men who had been convicted of a 1983 murder begin a new life eight months after their convictions were overturned and they were released from prison.
“Today we put the past behind us with not just a clear conscience, but a clear name, committed to living a good life and doing God’s work,” half-brothers Leon Brown and Henry McCollum said in a statement released by their lawyer, Patrick Megaro.
Brown and McCollum have awaited the pardon, which allows them to collect compensation for their wrongful imprisonment, since pardon applications were received by McCrory on Sept. 15.
“We pray that justice will again prevail and the real murderer is punished justly for his crimes, and we also pray for the victim’s family that they find justice and peace,” the statement said.
The men had been convicted in 1984 of raping and killing Sabrina Buie, and the murder charge against Brown was later dropped. No physical evidence had tied the men to the crime, and lawyers for the men alleged that confessions they gave law enforcement had been coerced. McCollum was 19 and Brown 15 at the time of their convictions and both have low IQs.
The pardons, announced Thursday during a news conference, make McCollum and Brown eligible to collect $50,000 for every year they were imprisoned, up to a $750,000 cap. They may also now receive help paying for job-skills training and tuition. The brothers did not attend the announcement.
“It is difficult for anyone to know for certain what happened the night of Sabrina Buie’s murder. My deepest sympathies go out to the family of Sabrina Buie for what they have endured,” McCrory said in a statement.
“I know there are differing opinions about this case and who is responsible. This has been a comprehensive and thoughtful process during the past nine months. Based on the available evidence I’ve reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. It’s the right thing to do.”
McCrory said that he had met personally with the men as part of his review.
“As with all pardons of innocence, both pardon applications for Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown were thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, my legal team, and the Clemency Committee,” he said.
The Robeson County District Attorney’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation have been conducting dual investigations into Buie’s death, which occurred on Sept. 24, 1983. One investigation — conducted as part of McCrory’s review of the pardon requests — looked at whether McCollum and Brown were culpable in Buie’s death. Another looks at whether anyone else should be charged in Buie’s death.
An investigation, opened in 2009 by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, found that DNA on a cigarette butt discovered at the scene of Buie’s murder matched the DNA of Roscoe Artis, who is in prison for committing a similar crime in Red Springs about one month after Buie’s death. Artis lived near the field where Buie’s body was found. That evidence was presented during the September hearing that led to the men’s freedom.
“I’m thrilled for them,” said Ken Rose, an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation who represented McCollum for about 20 years. “It certainly alone is not going to compensate for the 30 years but it’s a recognition that the system failed and it’s a recognition that they shouldn’t have been in prison or on death row — even without the money.”
The money, however, will go a long way in supporting the two men, who began their lives anew after exiting prison. Lawyers with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation organized a fundraiser to assist the men following their exoneration.
“It’s of critical importance in terms of sustaining them, in terms of living day to day,” Rose said, noting he no longer represents the half-brothers. “Their family had very little money and has very little money and it was tough to find enough to pay for rent, food and utilities, so this is going to be a very important source for them to move on with their lives.”
Rose said although he’s confident that McCrory’s review of the case was “exhaustive,” there were times when he wondered whether McCollum and Brown would ever see the pardons awarded.
“I represented Henry for 20 years and for 20 years was frustrated with the sense that no matter what I did or what I said about his innocence that there was nothing I could do to prove it, and it’s only because a cigarette butt had been preserved and the Innocence Commission pursued it that Henry and Leon are free today …,” Rose said.
Rose said the announcement brings him hope, but also reminds him that there is more work to do to ensure justice for others who may have been wrongfully sentenced to die.
“It is hopeful, but I think it begs the question of faults and flaws in the system that need to be addressed and I think one way to do that is to halt executions and take a hard look at whether we can protect innocent people from being executed,” Rose said. “My position is that we cannot and Henry and Leon are a testament to that.”