When a Superior Court judge on Tuesday overturned the convictions of Henry McCollum in the 1983 rape and murder of Sabrina Buie and Leon Brown in the 11-year-old girl’s rape, there was jubilation in the courtroom that such a miscarriage of justice had finally been recognized even if restoration were no longer possible.
But not everyone was clapping.
A handful or fewer of Buie’s relatives were visibly upset at Judge Douglas Sasser’s decision for freedom instead of a new trial for the two men, and they quickly exited the courtroom. This newspaper hopes to give them a voice, but when and if that is to happen will be their decision.
For McCollum and Brown, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014, is etched as the beginning of the end of a three-decade-old horror during which they shared cells with this state’s most dangerous criminals for crimes they not only didn’t commit, but for which there was never rock-hard evidence, just confessions that now seem to have been forced from two teens who had no chance in an intellectual chess match with adults in uniform.
We were gladdened to see that there were a couple of dozen supporters of both men in the courtroom, knowing that they will need support as they try to transition back into a society that has moved on without them. That McCollum and Brown are mentally challenged will only lengthen the odds that can be happily achieved.
Tuesday was much different for Buie’s survivors as it plucked the scab from a 30-year-old wound and yanked away the closure that provided comfort following the trials and convictions of McCollum and Brown. We trust they find some solace in knowing that the man who most likely murdered Buie, Roscoe Artis, is spending the rest of his life in prison for a rape and murder of Joann Brockman that occurred a month after Buie’s — a rape and murder that might never had occurred if investigators had followed a different trail early on.
There is much that points toward Artis’ guilt: The timing, manner and location of Brockman’s rape and murder; DNA evidence; and Artis’ own words, to a fellow inmate during what could be characterized as a confession, and to investigators who testified that parts of Artis’ story can be disproved.
But Artis is not in prison for Buie’s rape and murder. Although he could be tried for both, few would see the point — except, perhaps, Buie’s survivors. They are the victims once again.
This magnifies the tragedy of what was clearly a botched investigation during a time when lawmen did not enjoy some of the investigatory tools they do now, most significantly DNA evidence. We don’t believe that investigators purposely targeted McCollum and Brown, but it is easy to believe that once the boys appeared on the radar that investigators saw a finish line, group think engaged and the investigation narrowed instead of broadened.
We hope people will recognize this for what it was, a botched investigation, not an attempted lynching. The reality is haunting enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.