Henry McCollum walks out of prison last September. (Michael Biesecker/AP)

After three decades behind bars, two men in North Carolina were declared innocent last fall and released.

But despite a state law that could have allowed each man to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation, neither man was able to seek this money for nearly a year because they were still awaiting a formal pardon.

On Thursday, nine months after the men were released, the pardons came through. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) announced that he had pardoned them and stated: “It’s the right thing to do.”

Henry McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown were convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl named Sabrina Buie in 1983. The two men, who were teenagers at the time, were mentally disabled, and both eventually signed confessions that made up most of the evidence against them. (They said that they were coerced into signing these confessions.)


Leon Brown speaks with a reporter last year before his release. (Chuck Liddy/News & Observer via AP)

Both men were convicted of first-degree murder and rape and sentenced to death in 1984. Those convictions were vacated by the state Supreme Court a few years later, and during new trials, McCollum was sentenced to death again and Brown was sentenced to life in prison.

They continued arguing that they were innocent, and years later, DNA evidence found near the crime scene instead identified Roscoe Artis, who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for a different murder.

[McCollum’s attorney: Now that he’s free, I’m still furious]

In September, following a hearing, Superior Court Judge Douglas B. Sasser determined that McCollum and Brown’s sentences should be vacated “based on significant new evidence that they are in fact innocent” and that they should be released from prison.

The district attorney who prosecuted the case, Joe Freeman Britt — known for winning more than 40 death penalty sentences — said after the two men were freed that he still thought both were “absolutely” guilty. The current district attorney, Johnson Britt, who is a distant relative of the older Britt, said he had no plans to prosecute the men again and his office helped the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission investigate the case.

The older Britt did not seem particularly swayed by arguments that the two men were not mentally capable of understanding the confessions they signed, telling the New York Times: “When we tried those cases, every time they would bring in shrinks to talk about how retarded they were. It went on and on and on, blah-blah-blah.”

[A prosecutor in Louisiana apologized publicly for sending an innocent man to death row]

McCollum, who spent the better part of three decades on death row, is one of six people in the country who had been sentenced to death and was exonerated last year, according to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations. All told, a record 125 people were exonerated last year, dozens of whom had pleaded guilty.

North Carolina state law says that McCollum and Brown could each be eligible for up to $750,000 in compensation due to “erroneous conviction and imprisonment,” but only once they were formally pardoned by the governor. When Brown and McCollum were released from prison last September, McCrory said his office would begin reviewing the applications as soon as they arrived.

McCrory said in a statement Thursday that the pardon applications for both men were extensively reviewed during “a comprehensive and thoughtful process.” He said he met with both men and that many other people were interviewed as part of the process.

“It is difficult for anyone to know for certain what happened the night of Sabrina Buie’s murder,” he said. “My deepest sympathies go out to the family of Sabrina Buie for what they have endured.”

Related:

Most Americans support the death penalty, even though they’re pretty sure innocent people can be put to death

“It was fundamentally unfair.” A prosecutor apologizes for putting an innocent man on death row

Meet the state Supreme Court justice who stepped down to protest the death penalty