September 04, 2014
Published: Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 4:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 4:37 p.m.
One of two men released from prison Wednesday after serving 30 years for a child murder they didn't commit will live with his family in Bolivia.
Leon Brown, 46, and his brother Henry McCollum, 50, were exonerated by DNA three decades after being sentenced to die for the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs. Brown's sentence was later changed to life in prison, but McCollum was North Carolina's longest serving inmate on death row. Both brothers are intellectually disabled. When convicted, McCollum was 19, and Brown was 15.
On Tuesday, Robeson County Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser dismissed the charges against Brown and McCollum following a hearing where an investigator with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission detailed the results of new DNA testing of items found at the crime scene, said Brown's attorney James Payne, a Wilmington death-penalty certified lawyer who handles a number of high-profile cases in the Cape Fear region. Brown's other attorney was Ann Kirby of the Public Defender's Office in Pitt County. McCollum was represented by Ken Rose and Vernetta Alston, attorneys at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham.
The DNA testing presented to the court revealed none of the items matched McCollum or Brown, Payne said. Instead, DNA found on a cigarette butt from the crimes scene matches, Roscoe Artis, 74, a convicted rapist and murderer who lived less than 100 yards from where Buie's body was found, according to Sasser.
Artis is currently serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that occurred less than a month after Buie's death.
"The DNA results not only contradict the state's previous theory that Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown raped and murdered Sabrina Buie ... they, along with other circumstantial evidence, show a strong likelihood that the serial rapist and murderer Mr. Artis, alone, raped and murdered Ms. Buie," Sasser wrote in the order vacating the sentences.
While McCollum will live in Bolivia with his parents, Brown will live at an undisclosed location in North Carolina with a sister who moved here from New Jersey, Payne said.
"What happened to Mr. Brown 30 years ago is an egregious miscarriage of justice," Payne said. "The evidence was significant in breadth and scope and could have very likely resulted in an innocent verdict if it had been introduced in the original trial."
Payne said the only evidence presented at the original trial of McCollum and Brown's guilt was a confession from McCollum after five hours of interrogation, followed by a confession from Brown hours later. Payne described the men, even as adults, as having the "intellectual ability of children."
Now, Brown, who on his own in 2009 filed the request for a review of his case with the Innocence Commission that ultimately set him free, will begin the business of living, Payne said.
"He's a free man. He's out of prison as of about 12:30," Payne said Wednesday.
F.T. Norton: 343-2070
On Twitter: @FTNorton