When 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was raped and murdered in 1983 in a small town in North Carolina, law students skipped classes to attend the trial. The crime quickly became one of the most notorious in the modern history of Robeson County. The convictions of two teenage boys was controversial — in part because the accused were mentally challenged. And the district attorney went down in history as one of the “deadliest prosecutors.”
Now three decades later, the convictions of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown have been tossed out.
On Tuesday, the verdicts were overturned in light of new DNA evidence linking the crime to another man in prison for a similar rape and murder. Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser ordered them freed, “based on significant new evidence that they are, in fact, innocent.” And Tuesday night, McCollum, 50, one of state’s longest-serving death-row inmates, and his half-brother, Brown, 46, serving a life sentence, spent their last night behind bars.
“We waited years and years,” James McCollum, Henry McCollum’s father, said on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. “We kept the faith.”
The 30-year nightmare began in late September 1983. Sabrina Buie was found dead in a soybean field behind a grocery store in in Red Springs, a small town near the South Carolina border. Police said she was naked except for a bra, and she had been raped and suffocated with her own panties that had been stuffed down her throat.
McCollum and Brown, who were 19 and 15 at the time, were arrested after police got a tip from a “confidential informant,” a 17-year-old classmate acting on rumors she heard around school, the Guardian reported. Defense attorneys said the two — who were both mentally challenged and struggled with basic reading and writing — endured five hours of questioning without a lawyer present while McCollum’s mother cried outside in a hallway.
“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” McCollum recently told the News & Observer. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”
McCollum and Brown both signed confessions written for them — each one implicating the other as well as other alleged accomplices. McCollum has recanted his confession 226 times, the News & Observer reported.
A year after the murder, the two boys were convicted and sentenced to death. The other boys mentioned in the confessions were never charged.
McCollum and Brown were retried in 1991 and 1992, respectively. McCollum was convicted of murder again and sentenced to death. Brown was convicted of rape and given a lesser sentence of life in prison.
The breakthrough in their case came in 2009 when McCollum reached out to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent organization created by the North Carolina General Assembly. The commission found DNA evidence on a Newport cigarette butt pulled from the crime scene. It matched up with another man who had been convicted of a similar rape and murder that occurred less than a month after Buie was found dead. The commission’s director, Sharon Stellato, testified on Tuesday that the man, now a 74-year-old inmate, told her several times that McCollum and Brown were innocent, though he did not confess.
“If the police would have done their job, then Leon and Henry wouldn’t be in prison,” Stellato quoted the inmate as saying, according to the News & Observer. (The Washington Post is not naming him because he hasn’t been charged in Buie’s death. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said he will review the findings and decide whether to charge him.)
“The evidence you heard today in my opinion negates the evidence presented at trial,” Britt said at Tuesday’s trial. He added, “Based upon this new evidence, the state does not have a case to prosecute.”
After the exoneration, original prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt — no relation to the current district attorney — spoke out.
“It’s a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” he said, according to the News & Observer. “That case was fought with powerful arguments, but apparently the district attorney just threw up his hands and capitulated.”
McCollum said the men’s freedom was long overdue.
“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. I never got the chance to to realize those dreams,” he told the News & Observer. “Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”