LUMBERTON — For Geraldine Brown, it comes as no surprise that after 30 years in prison, her brothers may soon walk free.
“I knew all the time that they hadn’t done nothing to nobody,” she said by telephone from New Jersey, where she now lives. “The story is a lie. The whole thing is a lie.”
Geraldine’s younger brother, Leon Brown, 46, and half-brother, Henry McCollum, 50, have been in prison since 1984 in connection with the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs in 1983. Now, armed with DNA evidence suggesting their innocence — and the guilt of another man serving a life sentence for similar crime in the same small town — the brothers may be granted new trials, or immediately released from confinement.
“It’s a sad situation and a happy situation. They know now that they kept two innocent boys for 31 years for nothing,” Brown said.
Geraldine remembers the night in September 1983 when officers took Henry, then 19 years old, in for questioning.
“The way we were treated that day I will never forget,” she said.
During the brothers’ trial the next year, then Red Springs Police Chief Luther Haggins said authorities must have questioned nearly 100 people following the girl’s death. According to a motion for relief field by Leon Brown’s attorney, Henry became a suspect in Buie’s death following a tip from a “confidential informant.”
Geraldine said she and her mother went to the Red Springs Police Department to figure out what was going on and found the room where her brother was being interviewed was locked. According to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, he was questioned for more than four hours.
“We could hear Henry screaming out, ‘No, I didn’t hurt nobody,” she said.
Geraldine was questioned, and later that night, so was 15-year-old Leon. By the next day, authorities had signed, handwritten confessions from both brothers.
“I don’t believe they confessed at all. I just believe the long wait, never coming out of there … they were kept in a room for hours without a bathroom or anything to drink. After all of that, I think they gave up,” Geraldine said.
Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, who was a deputy at the time and helped interview Henry along with two SBI agents, insists the teen was not forced to do or say anything.
But in the wake of a crime that left the tight-knit town searching for answers, all eyes were on Geraldine’s family. After Leon and Henry were convicted, they moved to Jersey City.
“It just looked like everyone was looking our way,” Geraldine said.
Geraldine said she’s had a few opportunities to visit her brothers in prison since.
“I told them God is good and God never fails you. Sometimes God does things for a reason. There’s a lot to it,” she said.
In the meantime, she said, her brothers have missed a lot. Several family members have passed away, including their mother, who died about a year ago.
“My mom is shining down,” Geraldine said.
It was Geraldine who might have opened the door to freedom for her brothers.
In 2010, she contacted the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which was able to find the DNA evidence that placed Roscoe Artis where Buie’s body was found. He is in prison for the rape and murder of Joann Brockman that occurred about a month after Buie was killed. On Tuesday, a Columbus County judge will decide if Henry and Leon will get new trials based on that evidence or be released.
“We cried out for help and cried out for help and no one was there,” she said. “… My brothers, they were not the first and they will not be the last that are in there for a crime they didn’t commit.”
As much as her family has struggled, Geraldine has always kept in mind Sabrina Buie and the family that lost her to an horrific death. She suffocated after her killer stuffed he panties down her throat.
“She was a very sweet girl,” Geraldine said. “She didn’t deserve none of that. No one does.”