After 31 years of wrongful imprisonment half-brothers Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were released based on new evidence they are innocent of the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs, North Carolina in September 1983. The new evidence was the DNA profile identified from a cigarette butt found near Ms. Buie’s body that doesn’t match McCollum or Brown — but does match a man currently imprisoned for the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Red Springs a month after Ms. Buie’s murder.
The 19-year-old McCollum and 15-year-old Brown had recently moved to North Carolina from New Jersey, when they were arrested after a local teenager cast suspicion on McCollum in Ms. Buie’s death. After five hours of interrogation without a lawyer present and not being allowed to see his mother, and during which McCollum was threatened he could be executed if he did not cooperate, the police suggested to him he could go home if he told them he committed the crime. After McCollum told the police he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl he asked the detectives: “Can I go home now?”
Brown was also being interrogated and threatened with execution if he didn’t confess. He steadfastly denied any involvement in the crime until told that McCollum had confessed. Both young men are “intellectually disabled,” and they subsequently recanted their confessions as coerced.
The prosecution had no physical, forensic or eyewitness evidence linking McCollum and Brown to the crime, so their convictions of rape and murder in 1984 were based on their confessions. Both were sentenced to death. After their convictions were overturned on appeal, McCollum was again convicted of rape and murder in 1991 and sentenced to death. Brown was retried in 1992 and after being convicted of only rape, he was sentenced to life in prison.
On August 26, 2014 lawyers for McCollum and Brown filed a motion in Robeson County that requested the overturning of their convictions and dismissal of the charges based on new DNA evidence from a cigarette butt found near Ms. Buie’s body that excluded the two men, but matched the DNA of Roscoe Artis. Artis is currently imprisoned for a teenager’s rape and murder in Red Springs about a month after Ms. Buie’s murder. The motion also included evidence that Artis had admitted to fellow prisoners that he raped and killed Ms. Buie, and that McCollum and Brown were not involved.
A week later, on September 2, 2014, Superior Court Judge Douglas B. Sasser granted the motion and ordered the immediate release of McCollum, 50, and Brown, 46.
McCollum had spent almost 30 years on death row for his rape and murder convictions, while Brown was serving life in prison for his rape conviction.