Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

2 convicted in 1983 North Carolina murder are freed after DNA tests

LUMBERTON, N.C. — 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 to be 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 possible 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 Sasser, said he was vacating their convictions and ordering their release.

"Thank you, Jesus," said 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."

McCollum was 19 and 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 McCollum. After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, he told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.

Before the night was done, 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.

Oddly, the other two men mentioned in McCollum's confession were never prosecuted.

McCollum recently reflected on his fate.

"I have never stopped believing that one day I'd be able to walk out that door," he said in an interview.

2 convicted in 1983 North Carolina murder are freed after DNA tests 09/03/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2014 10:36pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, NY Times Syndication.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Jones: Alex Cobb proves again why he's Rays' stopper, no matter how long he's here

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG

    If a team hopes to hang around the pennant race, they better have an ace. A stopper. A pitcher they can count on every fifth day to stop the bleeding, keep a winning streak going or flat-out win a game that a team flat-out needs to win.

    Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) throwing the first inning. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
  2. Why did Debbie Wasserman Schultz keep paying tech expert suspected of stealing House computers?

    Blogs

    The following is from the Miami Herald:

  3. GOP senators blink on a big chance to repeal 'Obamacare'

    Nation

    WASHINGTON — After seven years of emphatic campaign promises, Senate Republicans demonstrated Wednesday they don't have the stomach to repeal "Obamacare" when it really counts, as the Senate voted 55-45 to reject legislation undoing major portions of Barack Obama's law without replacing it.

    U.S. Sen. Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) talks with reporters as he walks to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington, DC. [Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
  4. Rick Baker's debate answer revives painful St. Pete controversy

    Elections

    ST. PETERSBURG — Former Mayor Bill Foster fired one of his top administrators, Goliath Davis III, six years ago for disobeying an order to attend the funeral of a slain police officer.

    St. Petersburg police officers stand by two caskets before the beginning of the 2011 funeral services for Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz at the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD   |  Times]
  5. Plan your weekend July 28-30: Comic Con, Lady Antebellum, Margarita Wars, Tampa's Fourth Friday

    Events

    Plan your weekend

    Geek out

    Tampa Bay Comic Con: The fan convention returns to the Tampa Convention Center this weekend, bringing actors Val Kilmer, Kate Beckinsale, Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Lt. Uhura), Khary Payton (Ezekiel in The Walking Dead) and the …

    Ibri Day poses for a photo at opening day of the 2015 Tampa Bay Comic Con at the Tampa Convention Center. (Friday, July 31, 2015.) [Photo Luis Santana | Times]