September 06, 2014
When Leon Brown, 46, and his half-brother Henry McCollum, 50, were convicted of raping and killing an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County in 1984, Ronald Reagan was president, “The Cosby Show” had just debuted on TV, and there were no cell phones, iPads or email accounts.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser on Tuesday exonerated the brothers, ordering their immediate release from prison into a world with which they’re not familiar, having spent the past three decades in separate North Carolina prisons.
Until his exoneration and release, McCollum was the state’s longest-serving death row inmate.
James Payne, a Wilmington defense attorney who, along with Pitt County Public Defender Ann Kirby, represented Brown, recently sat down with Port City Daily and Port City Radio to discuss this case, the brothers’ reaction to being exonerated and what’s next for them.
Can you share with our readers and our listeners the background of this case?
In 1983, Sabrina Buie was brutally raped and murdered in the little town of Red Springs. Her body was left in a soybean field. Law enforcement found her there. Subsequent autopsies showed that her panties had been stuffed down her throat. She had asphyxiated on them and a stick was found lodged in her throat. Various other items of physical evidence were found scattered around the edge of the field.
Law enforcement, in about three days, focused their attention on Mr. McCollum and interrogated him at the Red Springs Police Department, then they interrogated Leon Brown. These two boys, at the time, Leon , 15, and Mr. McCollum, 19, signed confessions–so-called–that were written out by law enforcement.
And then they were subsequently prosecuted based upon those confessions about one year later. And they were tried and convicted. Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown were sentenced to death. They were subsequently retried, separately. Mr. McCollum was re-sentenced to death. Leon was sentenced to life in prison. The trial judge at that trial dismissed the murder charge [against Brown]. He was convicted of the rape and has been in prison for the past 31 years.
Of the items that were found in the soybean field, one in particular—the cigarette butt containing DNA—was a key part of the brothers’ exoneration. What was the process involved in bringing this evidence forward?
It brings into the conversation a very pioneer commission that we have in North Carolina. It’s called the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. Mr. Brown…his IQ was at the time was and still is about 50. When he was 15, he was operating on a 7-year-old ability. He met up with somebody in prison who told him about this commission, helped him fill out the paperwork, applying to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission to take his case on because he had always maintained his innocence.
That commission has broad powers, investigatory powers and the ability to do testing that may not have been done. They are the ones that did the testing. They acquired the cigarette butt—and other pieces of evidence—and did substantial testing on it, DNA testing being some of the most significant. They found the DNA of another individual, identifying it, and excluding Leon and excluding Mr. McCollum not just from the cigarette butt, but from all the other items of evidence found at the scene.
What was the timeline between when the Innocence Commission became involved and Judge Sasser’s ruling?
2009 is when Leon submitted his paperwork. 2010 is when the commission took up the work and started its investigation. So we’re talking about four years. When the identification was targeted on a specific individual, then things ramped up from there.
How did you become involved with this particular case?
North Carolina also has the Indigent Defense Services (IDS) Commission. It’s a state agency that regulates and oversees court-appointed lawyers. And Leon being indigent needed counsel. And so the IDS asked me to become involved in it a little over a month ago to do the representation of Leon and speak for him and represent him and litigate his part of the claim in court.
What were the reactions of Mr. Brown and Mr. McCollum in the courtroom when they learned they had both been exonerated of the crimes after three decades in prison?
It was an experience like no other. Courtrooms have drama from time to time, some more emotional than others. Mr. McCollum cried. Leon—a man of few words—had a lot of smiles. His reaction was just joy. His comment was, “God is good.”
How does something like this happen, serving 30 years in prison for a crime one didn’t commit?
Your question speaks to a very important point here. We, as we go around in our daily lives, cannot fathom that a person would admit to something that they did not do. That’s what happened here. These two boys—remember how limited they were in functioning—were in a room with very experienced law enforcement officers, one of which, in Mr. McCollum’s case, knew all the details of the crime scene, was present at the autopsy–knew everything.
They had no access to lawyers. They did not have a parent in there with them. Given all of those factors, they admitted to something they did not do. They signed confessions to horrible crimes. And Mr. McCollum has always maintained that he was told, ‘If you just admit to this, then you get to go home.’
And what has not been said a lot but should be very well remembered is that when Mr. McCollum signed this statement, admitting to these horrendous acts, he got up out of his seat and was walking out the door. The law enforcement officer said, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going home,’ he said. ‘You said I could go home.’
Now think about that, you’ve just admitted to horrendous crimes and you think you’re going to go home. And, of course, they said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re under arrest.’
What’s next for Mr. Brown and Mr. McCollum?
The brothers, of course being free, have some remedies left for them. One is the governor’s pardon. Gov. Pat McCrory came out yesterday with a great press release in which he welcomed the judgment of Judge Sasser—who by the way is the senior resident superior court judge for Columbus and Bladen counties. The governor welcomed that judgment of the court and reminded everybody that there is a process in his office called a petition for pardon of innocence.
That is where the brothers have an opportunity to proceed right now.
Let’s talk about the pardon process and why it is important?
There are a couple reasons. First of all, of course, it’s the state’s way of saying, ‘I’m sorry.’
The judge, in his order, citing the reasons that the DA–we can’t forget, the great lawyering and representation of the district attorney here, Mr. Johnson Britt, who was a man of integrity. But the judge cited that and he also cited the evidence of innocence. That’s the judiciary saying you’re innocent.
The state of North Carolina, who put them in prison for 30 years, can say, ‘We’re sorry. We got it wrong,’ through the governor’s pardon. The governor has a petition process by which anyone can ask the governor for a pardon—much like asking the president for a pardon of a federal crime.
The governor would have the option to do that. It’s completely within his discretion. If the governor issues a pardon of innocence—not only is the state saying, ‘Here is our return to you of the innocence that you had back in 1983,’ but they are also entitled to a financial award. Each person would be entitled to—in this particular case—about $750,000. That’s a matter already established.
Where do the brothers plan to live now that they’re free?
I believe that Mr. McCollum has relocated here to Brunswick County, to Bolivia, with his father and step-mother. Currently, Leon is living with his sister, Geraldine, in Fayetteville. What their plans are from there, of course, is for them to decide. Hopefully, they’ve got plenty of time to do that.
What has this case meant to you, personally, as a defense attorney?
I would say that there are two thoughts that run through a criminal defense attorney’s mind in cases like this. The first is pride—pride in that you’re involved in the greatest justice system on the face of the earth. The other is tinged with a little bit of regret, probably more than a little bit, that the system let them down in that one of them could have been executed. They both lost 30 years of their lives. The overriding, however, is pride that the justice system ultimately worked. It ultimately worked. You can’t say that in other countries around the world.
How does the state ensure the justice system’s integrity in light of a case like this where two innocent men–one of whom was on death row–spent three decades in prison for a crime they did not commit?
So much really depends on the individual themself. We have, in North Carolina, many avenues for the wrongly convicted to achieve their exoneration but they’ve got to do a great deal of it themself. We have to always be vigilant, however, that just because a person is charged with a crime, doesn’t mean they did it. And just because they may have said that they did it, doesn’t mean that that’s true.
The justice system has to always presume—always—that they’re innocent.
Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily. She can be reached at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Cgcurran