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.