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2 Convicted in 1983 North Carolina Murder Are Freed After DNA Tests

Originally posted by cyberghostface at 2 Convicted in 1983 North Carolina Murder Are Freed After DNA Tests


Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half-brothers were declared innocent and released Tuesday by a Robeson County court.

The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man with a history of rape and murder.

The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, now 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential for false, coerced confessions and also of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.

As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a superior court judge, Douglas B. Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and ordering their release.

“Thank you, Jesus,” said Mr. McCollum’s father as the judge said that the convictions were void. “Thank you, Jesus,” he repeated.

The current district attorney, Johnson Britt, did not contest the motion to dismiss the charges and said he would not attempt to reprosecute the men because the state “does not have a case.”

Mr. McCollum was 19, and Mr. Brown was 15, when they were picked up by police in Red Springs, a small town in the southern part of the state, on the night of Sept. 28, 1983. Weeks earlier, the body of Sabrina Buie, who had been raped and suffocated with her underwear, had been discovered in a soybean field.

No physical evidence tied the youths, both African-American, as was the victim, to the crime, but someone had apparently cast suspicion on Mr. McCollum. After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Mr. McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.

“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” Mr. McCollum said in a recent videotaped interview with The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”

After he signed a statement written out in longhand by investigators, he asked, “Can I go home now?” according to an account by his defense lawyers.

Before the night was done, Mr. Brown, told that his half-brother Henry had confessed and facing similar threats that he could be executed if he did not cooperate, also signed a confession. Both of them subsequently recanted at trial, saying their confessions had been coerced. Oddly, the other two men mentioned in Mr. McCollum’s confession were never prosecuted.

The case has been a particularly notorious one ever since, in North Carolina and nationwide. The two young defendants were prosecuted by the district attorney Joe Freeman Britt, a 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting lawyer who was later profiled by “60 Minutes” as the country’s “deadliest D.A.” (He is not related to the current district attorney.)

Both defendants initially received death sentences for murder. After new trials were ordered by the State Supreme Court, Mr. McCollum was again sentenced to death, while Mr. Brown was convicted only of rape and his sentence was reduced to life.

As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr. McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers accusing a Democrat of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer.

In 1994, when the United States Supreme Court turned down a request for review of the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described Mr. McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who was an open opponent of the death penalty and had voted to hear the case, noted that Mr. McCollum had the mental age of a 9-year-old and that “this factor alone persuades me that the death penalty in this case is unconstitutional.”

(In later years, the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for minors and the execution of the mentally disabled.)

Lawyers for the two men from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit legal group in North Carolina, began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found near sticks used in the murder.

Recent testing by an independent state agency, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, found a match for the DNA on the cigarette butt – not to either of the imprisoned men, but to Roscoe Artis, who lived only a block from where Sabrina Buie’s body was found and had a history of rape convictions.

Only weeks after the murder of Ms. Buie, in fact, Mr. Artis confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs, a town of fewer than 4,000 residents. Mr. Artis received a death sentence, later reduced to life, for that crime and remains in prison today. Officials have not explained why, despite the similarities in the crimes, they kept their focus on Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown even as the men proclaimed their innocence.

The only witness at Tuesday’s hearing was Sharon Stellato of the innocence inquiry commission, who under questioning from defense lawyers described the lack of evidence tying the two men to the crime as well as the DNA evidence implicating Mr. Artis. The district attorney said he had no evidence to the contrary.

Joe Freeman Britt, the original prosecutor, told The News & Observer last week that he still believed the men were guilty.

Mr. McCollum, his hopes raised by the apparent DNA exoneration, reflected on his fate.

“I have never stopped believing that one day I’d be able to walk out that door,” he said in the recent videotaped interview.

“A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything,” he said. “I never got a chance to realize those dreams.”

“Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”

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