"DNA Evidence Clears Two Men in 1983 Murder," is the New York Times report by Jonathan M. Katz and Erik Eckholm.
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 ordered released Tuesday by a judge here.
The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.
The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 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 harm from false, coerced confessions and of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.
As friends and relatives of the two men wept, a Superior Court judge in Robeson County, Douglas B. Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and Mr. McCollum’s death sentence and ordering their release. The courtroom erupted into a standing ovation.
"2 N.C. men's convictions overturned in 1983 killing," is AP coverage, via the Greensboro News & Record.
One of North Carolina's longest-serving death-row inmates and his half brother are being freed after three decades in prison after another man's DNA was discovered on a cigarette butt left near the body of a girl the siblings were convicted of killing.
On Tuesday, a judge overturned the convictions of Henry McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, in the 1983 rape and murder of Sabrina Buie, citing the new evidence that they didn't commit the crime. The ruling is the latest twist in a notorious legal case that began with what defense attorneys said were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time and Brown was 15.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser said the new DNA results contradicted the case prosecutors put forward.
Because of paperwork, it will likely take until Wednesday for the men to walk free, said Keith Acree, spokesman for the state prison system. They are required to return to the prisons where they have been serving time before they can be processed out.
The men's freedom hinged largely on the local prosecutor's acknowledgement of the strong evidence of their innocence.
“The evidence you heard today in my opinion negates the evidence presented at trial,” Johnson Britt, the Robeson County district attorney, said during a closing statement before the judge announced his decision. Britt was not the prosecutor of the men.
The Raleigh News & Observer reports, "Judge overturns convictions of Robeson men in child's 1983 rape, murder," by Joseph Neff. There is a timeline of the case at the link.
The brothers were ordered freed after the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission found DNA evidence tying the killing to Roscoe Artis, a sexual predator with a lengthy criminal history, including a similar rape and murder in Red Springs one month after the arrest of Brown and McCollum.
Prosecutors had argued at trials in the 1980s and 1990s that the killer left a cigarette at the crime scene. Recent DNA tests of that cigarette found Artis’ DNA on it.
Sharon Stellato of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission testified Tuesday that Artis, who is in prison in Warren County, told her in several interviews that Brown and McCollum were innocent.
“If the police would have done their job, then Leon and Henry wouldn’t be in prison,” Stellato quoted Artis as saying.
"McCollum, Brown freed," by Sarah Willets for the Robesonian.
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.
"Free at last: DNA exonerates 2 NC men imprisoned for 30 years, is by Mary Kuhlman of the N.C. News Service, via the Charlotte Post.
Ann Kirby, an attorney for Brown, said the case highlights the need for better investigations and people willing to stand up for what's right.
"District attorneys with the kind of courage that Johnson Britt has, as a true minister of justice, which is what prosecutors are charged to be - not going in just to get convictions, but to go in and just give the truth," Kirby said. "Because that's what we need is the truth - and sometimes, we stop before we get there."
Both McCollum and Brown have intellectual disabilities and were teenagers at the time of their arrest. James Payne, who also represented Brown, said the evidence that tied them to the crime was false - coerced confessions and investigators rushed to judgment.
"Taking the easy answer and ignoring all the other indicators that there was another answer to the question led to two of them being on death row," he said. “One for five, one for 31 years.”
McCollum's attorney, Ken Rose, called it "terrifying" that the justice system allowed the men to be wrongfully imprisoned. He added that there's a problem with the reliability of the convictions of people on death row.
"Mostly, these cases are old cases, before there were important reforms in the state, and I think there are a lot of problems in a lot of those cases," he said. "So, it's a powerful message that we should not restart executions, and we should consider abolishing the death penalty."
Attorneys for the two men have issued a news release, "DNA evidence frees two innocent N.C. men 30 years after wrongful conviction. One of the exonerees is North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate." Here's the text of the release.
LUMBERTON, N.C. — On Tuesday, two men, including North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate, were exonerated and released from prison after serving 30 years for a rape and murder they did not commit.
New DNA evidence, which proved their innocence, prompted a Robeson County judge to dismiss all charges against Henry Lee McCollum, who was living under a death sentence, and his half-brother, Leon Brown, who was serving a life sentence for the rape. Both are severely intellectually disabled and were teenagers – McCollum 19 years old, Brown just 15 - at the time of their arrests in 1983
McCollum and Brown were released after a hearing Tuesday morning in Robeson County Superior Court, in which the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency, detailed the results of its investigation, including DNA testing of items found at the crime scene. The Commission found that none of the items could be traced to McCollum or Brown. Instead, critical DNA evidence matched another individual named Roscoe Artis, a convicted rapist and murderer who lived less than 100 yards from where the victim’s body was found.
Lawyers for the two men said the new testing leaves no doubt about their clients’ innocence.
“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,” said Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, who has represented McCollum for 20 years. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. He would become so distraught he had to be put in isolation. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt agreed that McCollum and Brown are innocent of all charges, and consented to their unconditional release. No further charges will be brought against them. Judge Douglas Sasser signed an order acknowledging the men’s innocence.
The men’s attorneys said they appreciated Britt’s efforts to correct wrongs that occurred under the previous prosecutions. “We are most grateful to Johnson Britt, who has shown a strong desire to find the truth and to make sure that these two innocent men don’t spend any more time in prison,” said James Payne, a Wilmington attorney who represents Leon Brown.
McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death in 1984 for the murder of Sabrina Buie, an 11-year-old girl who was brutally raped and suffocated in the Robeson County town of Red Springs. Her body was left in a field, along with beer cans and cigarette butts. Investigators believe the girl was lured by her killer to drink beer, then attacked and killed.
Brown’s sentence was later reduced to life in prison and his charge reduced to rape, but McCollum has remained on death row through decades of appeals. Each had pursued many other legal avenues for relief until the Commission took up Brown’s case in 2010. The Commission ordered new testing and uncovered evidence that the men’s attorneys had not been able to obtain, all of which points to McCollum and Brown’s innocence.
The DNA match with Roscoe Artis was especially significant because, less than a month after Sabrina Buie’s killing, Artis raped and killed an 18-year-old girl, Joann Brockman, in shockingly similar circumstances. Both crimes happened in Red Springs, a town of only 4,000 people. Both victims were sexually assaulted, asphyxiated, and left in fields wearing only a bra. Artis was sentenced to death for Brockman’s murder, but his sentence was later reduced to life in prison. Despite the similarities between the two crimes -- and the fact that police suspected Artis of yet another similar rape and murder in Gastonia -- police failed to investigate Artis as a suspect in Buie’s murder. Artis also had a long criminal record including more than a half dozen incidents of attempted rape and assaults on women.
“This case is a tragedy which has profoundly affected not only the lives of the people involved, but which profoundly affects our system of justice in North Carolina,” said Ann Kirby, another attorney for Leon Brown. “This case highlights in a most dramatic manner the importance of finding the truth. Today truth has prevailed, but it comes thirty years too late for Sabrina Buie and her family, and for Leon, Henry, and their families. Their sadness, grief, and loss will remain with them forever.”
The only evidence that tied McCollum and Brown to the crime were false confessions that law enforcement obtained from the disabled teens, who even as adults have the intellectual ability of children. McCollum at first told police he knew nothing about the murder, but at 2 a.m. on Sept. 29, 1983, after five hours of intense interrogation, he signed a confession written by police. Soon after, his younger brother, Brown, also confessed.
North Carolina law now requires homicide interrogations to be recorded or videotaped, but at the time, no such laws were in place. There are no recordings of the confessions, which contain details that are factually impossible.
McCollum and Brown were originally prosecuted jointly by Robeson County District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, who earned the nickname “World’s Deadliest DA” for winning nearly 50 death sentences during his 12 years as chief prosecutor. At that time, there were also no laws preventing children and people with intellectual disabilities from being sentenced to death.
In 1991, courts granted the brothers separate new trials, saying the trial judge gave improper instructions to the jury. At Brown’s new trial, the judge acknowledged that there was little evidence of murder, dismissing it. The jury, however, convicted Brown of rape, and he received a life sentence. McCollum was again convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
In the years since their false confessions, McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence.
“In these old cases, tried under very different laws from what we have today, it is so difficult to root out the truth,” Rose said. “It’s even harder when the defendants are intellectually disabled or mentally ill, as so many on death row are. We were so lucky that the Innocence Inquiry Commission agreed to take this case. We can only be thankful that our client wasn’t executed before we had the chance to prove his innocence.”
Earlier coverage of the case begins at the link. The state of North Carolina currently has a moratorium on executions due to lethal injection issues.