A Superior Court judge is likely to decide this week if two men who were accused as teenagers of rape and murder, then convicted and imprisoned for 31 years will receive a new trial or go free.
But even if they walk free, there isn’t much left for Leon Brown, now 46, and half-brother Henry McCollum, now 50, to reclaim beyond whatever satisfaction comes with the shedding of the labels rapist and murderer.
It is because of the work of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state-established and dispassionate eight-person panel, that McCollum and Brown are back in the headlines. To its credit, North Carolina in 2002 became the first state to establish such a commission to look at iffy cases and several others have followed.
The commission was able to identify DNA evidence taken from where 11-year-old Sabrina Buie’s body was found and link it not to Brown or McCollum, but to another man who is already in prison, Roscoe Artis. Artis lived near where the body was found, so the DNA, which was taken from the cigarette, could have made its way there quite innocently. But the fact that Artis is in prison for raping and then murdering a woman in Red Springs about a month after Buie’s death tests the limits of coincidence.
Buie’s death is remembered three decades later for how horrifically she died. Joe Freeman Britt, dubbed the “World’s Deadliest DA” for sending almost 50 people to death row, famously had a courtroom sit in silence for 5 minutes — the length of time that it supposedly took for Buie to draw her final breath after her panties were stuffed down her throat.
The headlines at the time were large, and the Red Springs community was shaken. We don’t know if these factors led to a rush to judgment, but much of what is now known suggests a bumbled investigation.
Brown and McCollum were easy marks — black teenagers who both suffered learning disabilities. Investigators say they confessed to the crimes, but their advocates say the confessions were coerced.
The story they allegedly told, that they and two other teenagers raped and then killed Buie, evaporates because one of the other teens had an alibi and the fourth was never charged. It seems to us if some of the story is untrue, then it all becomes untrue.
There were other problems, including a fingerprint that was lifted from the scene that was never processed by the SBI nor disclosed when McCollum and Brown were retried separately in the early 1990s. McCollum was again convicted of both crimes, but Brown was found not guilty of murder, meaning he has now been imprisoned for 31 years for rape only.
And why did investigators at the time not link Artis’ rape and murder of Joann Brockman to the Buie case? Rape and murder is a rare combination, even in violent Robeson County, and Brockman and Buie were both abducted, raped and killed in tiny Red Springs.
District Attorney Johnson Britt, we believe appropriately, has surrendered to the new facts, essentially saying he will not contest what the DNA suggests. So Judge Douglas Sasser presumably will hear only from a defense well-positioned to at least introduce reasonable doubt, which would make new trials difficult if Britt decides to prosecute.
We don’t know what Sasser and perhaps Britt will decide, but justice delayed is justice denied. It was long ago too late for McCollum and Brown.