Judge finally rules to benefit of half-brothers

When two half-brothers from Red Springs were released from prison after spending three decades there for a rape and murder that they didn’t commit, what happened next was easy to predict: The exploitation only continued.

Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, who are both black and have low IQ’s, were each compensated $750,000 by the state for those lost years, which is not near enough for what amounted to two-thirds of their lives behind bars with real criminals who were violent. The buzzards began circling, trying to figure out how they could cash in on Brown and McCollum’s hard luck.

Brown and McCollumn were arrested and then railroaded in the 1983 rape and murder of Sabrina Buie, an 11-year-old Red Springs girl who suffocated when her panties were stuffed down her throat. The state gave them token representation, which was no match for Joe Freeman Britt, once dubbed the nation’s deadliest DA because of the long line of defendents he had directed to death row.

During their trial, Britt famously asked for complete courtroom silence for 5 minutes, the amount of time that he said it would have taken Buie to struggle before being denied a final breath.

Off to death row they went.

But there was never any physical evidence linking Brown or McCollum to Buie, and the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission got involved. A break occurred when DNA from a cigarette found at the murder scene didn’t belong to either Brown or McCollum, but to another man already on death row for a murder and rape in Red Springs that occurred shortly after Buie’s death.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, late in 2014, when confronted with this new information, did the right thing and elected not to retry the two half-brothers, and set them free.

The half-brothers filed lawsuit against Robeson County, the town of Red Springs, Kenneth Sealey, now sheriff but a Red Springs police detective in the early 1980s, and several other local law enforcement officers, the late Red Springs Police Chief Luther Haggins and two SBI agents.

A proposed settlement allowed for lawyers to take $400,000 of $1 million that was comining to Brown and McCollum — at least until a judge stepped in this week and said not so fast. Judge Terrence Boyle voided the contract with McCollum, and is apparently considering doing the same with Brown, apparently concluding that lawyers took advantage of them during the negotiating process.

It is not unusual for a judge to adjust lawyer fees, but James Coleman, a Duke University law professor, told the Associated Press this case was unusual, and that he had not seen another wrongful conviction lawsuit in which a judge has had to intervene regarding the propriety of a representation agreement this way.

“This is unusual,” he said. “A lot of judges wouldn’t do this simply because they don’t want to intervene. I think Boyle was right to look at this.”

We knew when Brown and McCollum exited prison, having spent 30 years there, they would be ill-prepared for what awaited them for an array of reasons, including their diminished mental capacity and their lack of independent living. But knew as well that they would have compensation coming their way, and that there would be those who tried to turn them into profit centers.

A judge this week intervened. The court system has not been kind to these two half-brothers, so we are glad to see it work this once on their behalf.