DNA offered in ‘83 rape, murder

First Posted: 8/25/2014

LUMBERTON — New DNA evidence may give two men jailed as teenagers for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Red Springs girl a shot at a new trial and freedom.

District Attorney Johnson Britt said a motion will be filed today on behalf of 50-year-old Henry Lee McCollum, who is on death row, and 46-year-old Leon Brown, who is serving a life sentence, showing that their DNA does not match DNA found where Sabrina Buie’s nude body was discovered and that exculpatory evidence may have been ignored.

The new evidence was discovered after Brown filed a claim in 2010 with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and sample DNA from the scene was matched with the statewide database.

“As a result of that, that sample was identified to a person who is in prison and a sample of DNA was received from that individual,” Britt said. “It is not one of the two people who are filing the motion.”

The commission, established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2006, investigates post-conviction claims of innocence and has the ability to exonerate defendants found to be innocent.

McCollum, Brown’s older half-brother, filed a similar claim in 2004, but with the technology available at the time, the sample was too small to test, Britt said.

According to Britt, McCollum and Brown’s attorneys are planning to claim that evidence favorable to the two men was never disclosed during their trials. A Brady violation is when the prosecution suppresses evidence favorable to the defense. Britt can either call for a new trial or dismiss the convictions against the two men, meaning they would exit prison.

The men were convicted on little physical evidence, but reportedly confessed to the crime.

Two days after Buie’s body was found in a soybean field near her Red Springs home, McCollum, who was 19 at the time, told police that he was with Buie, 15-year-old Leon Brown, Chris Brown and Darrell Suber on the night of Sept. 24, 1983.

According to McCollum’s statement, the men took turns holding the girl down while they each raped her. Suber warned the group that Buie may go to the police and suggested they kill her. McCollum stated he helped hold her down while Chris Brown used a stick to stuff Buie’s underwear down her throat and that he helped hide the body. Leon Brown gave a similar confession, and no physical evidence was presented.

The October 1984 trial helped solidify then District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt’s reputation as “the deadliest prosecutor,” a nickname given to him by the Guinness Book of World Records for winning 46 death row cases. During McCollum and Leon Brown’s trial, Britt famously held the courtroom in silence for five minutes — as long as prosecutors said it took Buie to suffocate.

Chris Brown and Suber were never charged — one had a confirmed alibi and the other denied all involvement. A Robeson County detective said at the time that investigators were never able to place the two at the scene. Chris Brown is not related to Leon Brown.

After McCollum and Leon Brown were convicted and each sentenced to death for the murder, they were granted new trials on the grounds that the first judge had not instructed the jury to consider their guilt or innocence individually, among other errors.

The two were tried again. McCollum was again found guilty of murder and rape in November 1991 and, in June 1992, Leon Brown was found guilty of rape, but not murder, removing him from death row.

The motion is expected to be heard next week in Robeson County Superior Court.