RALEIGH — Henry McCollum and Leon Brown are planning to ask for pardons after they were freed this week from North Carolina prisons following the discovery of evidence that they didn’t kill a young girl 30 years ago.
Vernetta Alston, an attorney for McCollum, says lawyers representing him and Brown, his half brother, are preparing petitions for a pardon of innocence and plan to file within the next couple of weeks. McCollum was freed from death row after three decades, while Brown had been serving a life sentence.
If the men are pardoned, they would be eligible to claim compensation under a state law that allows up to $750,000 for people wrongly convicted of felonies. Alston said Brown and McCollum had not yet explicitly discussed petitioning for compensation.
Gov. Pat McCrory in a statement said he was happy their convictions were overturned and that his office has a process for reviewing pardon applications.
“If they apply, we will begin reviewing their applications as soon as they are received,” McCrory said.
But such compensation hardly makes up for the long years the half brothers spent in prison, one of McCollum’s attorneys, Kenneth J. Rose, wrote in a column published Thursday in The Washington Post.
“Finally proving Henry and Leon’s innocence was a great victory, but what I cannot forget is that this case is, above all, a tragedy,” Rose wrote in the column, titled “I just freed an innocent man from death row. And I’m still furious.”
“Two innocent men — both intellectually disabled — spent three decades of their lives being, essentially, tortured by the state of North Carolina,” Rose wrote.
In North Carolina, those who have been wrongfully imprisoned and obtain a pardon of innocence from the governor can receive $50,000 for every year they were imprisoned up to the $750,000 cap. If there were no cap, Brown and McCollum could each claim $1.5 million.
In addition to compensation, the North Carolina Industrial Commission may also pay for job skills training for one year for those who have been wrongly imprisoned and help with tuition at any North Carolina community college or school in the University of North Carolina system.
In December, McCrory issued a pardon to a Chapel Hill man, LaMonte Burton Armstrong, who was imprisoned for more than 16 years after being convicted of killing a North Carolina A&T State University professor named Ernestine Compton at her Greensboro home in 1988. No physical evidence had tied Armstrong to the murder.
On Tuesday, a judge vacated convictions against Brown and McCollum and ordered their release, citing new DNA evidence that indicates another man killed and raped 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983.
The judge and local prosecutor acknowledged there was no physical evidence linking brown and McCollum to the crime. Defense attorneys say the two were coerced into confessing as scared teenagers with low IQs.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who didn’t prosecute the men, said the new evidence negated what was presented at trial. The prosecutor has said he’s considering whether to reopen the case and charge Roscoe Artis, who is currently serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs less than a month after Buie was killed.
“Now, with Henry finally free, some people expect me to feel satisfied, or even happy,” Rose wrote in his column. “The truth is: I am angry.
“I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.
“As I lie awake at night, mulling over the maddening details of this case, I wonder: How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?”
Staff writer Sarah Willets contributed to this report.