October 23, 2014
The exoneration of two half-brothers who falsely admitted to murdering an 11-year-old girl shows that confessions aren't always true, according to an attorney for one of the men.
"The only evidence that linked these two young boys to the crime was their confessions, which later turned out to be false," attorney W. James Payne said Tuesday. "A key learning point is that just because individuals may confess to crimes doesn't mean that they actually did them."
Payne spoke Tuesday at the N.C. Central University School of Law about the September exonerations of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown after they served 30 years in prison. Payne was Brown's lawyer.
The men were freed after a presentation in Robeson County Superior Court by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission showed that DNA evidence linked another man to the 1983 crime.
Payne said police got confessions from the men, who were mentally handicapped. At the time they were arrested, McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15.
They were accused of a grisly slaying. An autopsy showed that the girl, Sabrina Buie, died from suffocation after a stick was used to push panties down her throat. She was raped and her nude body found in a field in the small Robeson County town of Red Springs.
A story told by a high school student led police to McCollum and Brown, who were interrogated for more than four hours by three officers.
Payne said there were "huge" inconsistencies in the stories they told police -- "big, fat inconsistencies." But they signed confessions and were charged with murder and convicted. McCollum, now 50, ended up on death row before he walked out of Central Prison in Raleigh last month.
Brown walked out of Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County the same day.
Both men initially got death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was sent to death row again, and Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser last month overturned the convictions, saying the fact that another man's DNA was found on a cigarette butt near the girl's body contradicted the case presented by prosecutors.
A man who is in prison for committing a similar murder in Red Springs less than month after Sabrina was killed is being investigated for possible connection to the girl's death. But so far, he has not been charged.
Also speaking at the program was Sharon Stellato, associate director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that looks into claims of false convictions. The commission's work helped bring about the men's exoneration.
Stellato said no DNA was ever found that linked McCollum or Brown to the crime.
Since the commission began its work in 2007, it has helped exonerate seven people in North Carolina.
"What many people don't know about the commission is that we often confirm guilt," she said. "We're a neutral fact-finding agency, out there seeking the truth."
Tuesday's event was sponsored by the NCCU Law Innocence Project and the Death Penalty Project.