LUMBERTON — The sound of applause, crying and handcuffs being removed filled a Robeson County courtroom Tuesday afternoon as two half-brothers were freed after serving three decades in prison for a rape and murder a judge determined they did not commit.
Family members of 50-year-old Henry McCollum and 46-year-old Leon Brown hugged each other and shouted “thank you, Jesus,” as Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the men’s convictions and ordered their immediate release from prison.
It was a day of mixed emotions for dozens of relatives who traveled from out of the county and out of the state to hear McCollum and Brown’s fate — joy over their release, anger over their imprisonment, and sorrow for the family of Sabrina Buie, who again had to hear the horrific details of the 11-year-old’s murder on Sept. 24, 1983.
“This whole ordeal started when I was 11,” said Joseph Morrison, Brown and McCollum’s cousin. “… When they came and took Leon, I knew in my heart he didn’t kill anybody.”
Brown was 15 and McCollum 19 when they were found guilty of raping and murdering Buie, whose body was found in a soybean field blocks from her Red Springs home. A few relatives of Buie attended the hearing, but left the courtroom quickly — some in tears — after Sasser read his decision.
“It’s sad that all these families had to go through this because the system failed us. The system failed the loved ones that lost their daughter through a tragic rape and murder, and the system failed our cousins by falsely accusing them,” Morrison said.
Morrison was happy to see his cousins freed, but said Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t negate all they have been through.
“Can’t make up 31 years,” he said. “… Apologies and all that, keep the apologies. Apologies don’t help.”
Their father, James McCollum, and his wife, Priscilla, said the decision was a long time coming.
“Our prayers are out for Sabrina Buie’s family. We’re praying for them, that was a great loss. But we are so glad that justice was served and that the truth came out and we’re going to go on with our lives,” Priscilla McCollum said. “… We just were patient and waiting. It was stressful, it was heavy.”
Sharon Stellato, associate director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, spent nearly six hours on the stand reviewing what had turned up since Brown asked the the commission to investigate his case in 2009, including a cigarette butt containing DNA matching that of Roscoe Artis. The 74-year-old is serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Joann Brockman in Red Springs sooner than a month after Buie was killed.
According to Stellato, the evidence of Buie and Brockman’s murders — as well as other cases in Artis’ history of violence against women — was consistent. Both Buie and Brockman were taken to secluded locations, sexually assaulted and found with foreign objects in their throats. In Buie’s case, it was her underwear, which had been shoved down her throat with a stick until she died of asphyxiation.
Stellato read a long list to the crowd of evidence that had been tested since Brown and McCollum were first tried in 1984 and again in 1991 and 1992. No physical evidence ever linked back to them. She also recounted evidence from the case that had not been turned over despite multiple requests to do so.
Before McCollum and Brown’s first trial began, the Red Springs Police Department asked the state crime lab to run fingerprints found on beer cans where Buie’s body was discovered against Artis and L.P. Sinclair. Stellato said there was no record that the request was filled or that investigators in the 1984 trial were aware that Sinclair had been listed as a suspect days before he took the stand as a key witness.
Stellato said she first spoke to Artis in 2011 and has interviewed him again three times in the past two months.
Artis repeatedly told Stellato Buie had come to his house on the rainy day she was killed to see if he wanted her to buy him cigarettes. He said the young girl came by nearly every day.
As Stellato revisited Artis, inconsistencies bubbled up in his interviews. Relatives denied Buie ever came over. A farmer’s almanac showed it wasn’t raining when Buie disappeared. Artis asked Stellato why he would get out of bed “at 2 or 3 a.m.” to kill the girl. Stellato had never told him what time Buie was thought to have been killed.
McCollum’s lawyers, Vernetta Alston and Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, and Brown’s lawyers, Pitt County Public Defender Ann Kirby and Wilmington attorney James Payne, say their clients were convicted largely on the basis of confessions, which they allege were coerced. The interviews were not recorded on tape.
“They were easy targets. They’re mentally disabled. They were so young, and it all got started because of a rumor,” Kirby said. “They’re so compliant. If you ask Leon something, he wants to keep you happy. It’s just a horrible series of things and not enough investigation.”
Morrison said Brown was always “the comedian” in the family and only time will tell how he and McCollum readjust to life outside of prison.
“They can never be kids again,” Morrison said. “The kids that I remember are laughing and joking. the adult stage I’ve seen behind those walls is fear, fear alone — not knowing if it’s your day to be called to be put to death.”
Rose, a senior staff attorney who represented McCollum for 20 years, said his client became “distraught” seeing other inmates disappear to be put to death.
“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” Rose said in an emailed statement. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution … It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”
Kirby, a public defender who has represented Brown for a year, said her client’s sense of humor still remains. Despite tense silence in the courtroom, the two exchanged a few hushed chuckles and broad grins.
“I said ‘Big Mac and a milkshake’,” Kirby said, recalling what made Brown crack a smile. “… We had talked about that in the prison before — what’s the first thing he wants. He said McDonald’s.”
Morrison said his cousins can have whatever they want.
According to Kirby, McCollum has to return to Central Prison in Raleigh and Brown to Maury Correctional Institute to be “processed out” before they can walk free.
Kirby said she and Brown will stay in touch.
“Hearing the word innocent, I asked Leon, ‘Did you hear that word?’ … I don’t think I can quite let Leon go, we’ve gotten really close. I’ve been to see him, I don’t know how many times.”
Kirby became involved in the case after Brown contacted the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2009. As part of their investigation into his post-conviction innocence claim, he had to waive certain rights, like attorney-client privilege and protection against self-incrimination.
“Leon, he’s never let himself believe it,” Kirby said. “He’s always said he’s taking it day-by-day.”