Judge overturns convictions of Robeson men in child's
1983 rape, murder
BY JOSEPH NEFF
September 2, 2014
Leon Brown is all smiles as his brother Henry
McCollum is led away by guards at the Robeson County Courthouse in
Lumberton, N.C. Tuesday, September 2, 2014 after judge has declared
McCollum and Brown innocent of a brutal rape murder for which they have
spent 30 years in prison. The brothers were convicted of the 1983 rape
and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in a soybean
field near the tiny town of Red Springs. Both were being taken back to
their respective facilities to be processed and released. Photo by
Chuck Liddy — firstname.lastname@example.org
LUMBERTON — Despite a judge’s order declaring them innocent and freeing
them after almost 31 years, prison officials insisted that Henry
McCollum and Leon Brown remain in their custody Tuesday for one final
night behind bars.
The packed courtroom erupted in applause and tears after Superior Court
Judge Doug Sasser ordered them freed.
McCollum did not even smile afterward, his face beaded and his dress
shirt dappled with sweat, his hands still cuffed and legs in chains.
“I thank God for the strength to carry me through 31 years,” McCollum
Leon Brown allowed himself a broad smile, saying he was “feeling real
good right now.”
The brothers were kept apart on Tuesday and did not talk with or touch
They will face a bewildering and difficult time, having been locked up
their entire adult lives. Both are mentally challenged, with IQ tests
scoring in the 50s or 60s. They struggle with basic reading and
writing, and they have lived three decades in a world where guards told
them when to wake, dress, eat, shower and sleep.
Prison officials said McCollum and Brown needed to be processed before
being freed. McCollum spent Tuesday in Central Prison in Raleigh, and
Brown was returned to Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County.
For decades, the crime they were convicted of has been known as a
horror show of young men gone wild, gang-raping an 11-year-old girl,
Sabrina Buie, and killing her by stuffing her panties down her throat
with a stick.
brothers were ordered freed after the N.C. Innocence Inquiry
Commission found DNA evidence tying the killing to Roscoe Artis, a
sexual predator with a lengthy criminal history, including a similar
rape and murder in Red Springs one month after the arrest of Brown and
Prosecutors had argued at trials in the 1980s and 1990s that the killer
left a cigarette at the crime scene. Recent DNA tests of that cigarette
found Artis’ DNA on it.
Sharon Stellato of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission testified
Tuesday that Artis, who is in prison in Warren County, told her in
several interviews that Brown and McCollum were innocent.
“If the police would have done their job, then Leon and Henry wouldn’t
be in prison,” Stellato quoted Artis as saying.
Artis did not confess to Stellato. Robeson County District Attorney
Johnson Britt said he will decide whether to charge Artis after
reviewing the commission’s file.
McCollum was 19 and Brown 15 when they were arrested in Red Springs, a
small town in Robeson, a poor county on the South Carolina border with
a long history of violence and tense relations between whites, blacks
and Lumbee Indians. The district attorney who put them on death row,
Joe Freeman Britt, no relation to the current DA, was listed in
Guinness World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor,” responsible for
the most death sentences in the United States.
The main evidence against the brothers was two detailed confessions,
written in longhand by law enforcement and signed by each brother.
The other two men cited in the confession were never prosecuted; one
was in another town that night and there was no evidence against the
McCollum and Brown have said they were coerced into confessing.
Johnson Britt, the district attorney, said Tuesday that the DNA
evidence destroyed the case against the brothers and supported their
THE BACKGROUND OF THE CASE
Sept. 25, 1983:
Sabrina Buie is reported missing by her father. Her body is found the
Sept. 28: After a
high school junior says Henry McCollum is involved in the killing, SBI
agents and sheriff’s deputies obtain confessions from McCollum and Leon
Oct. 3: High school
student tells police she had no information on the killing, just that
McCollum didn’t act right and stared at women.
Oct. 22: Roscoe
Artis rapes and murders 18-year-old Joann Brockmann in Red Springs.
August 1984: Artis
convicted of the Brockmann murder and sentenced to death. Joe Freeman
Britt was the prosecutor.
and Brown are convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Under
questioning by Britt, McCollum denied guilt and recanted the confession
1988: N.C. Supreme
Court orders new trial for Brown and McCollum.
1991: McCollum is
retried, convicted and sentenced to death.
1992: Brown is
retried, convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison.
2009: Brown applies
to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency
created to examine claims of innocence.
2010: Red Springs
Police Department files letter in court saying it has evidence from the
2012: Former death
row inmate Sonny Craig files affidavit saying Artis said many times
that Brown and McCollum were innocent.
Innocence Inquiry Commission receives results of DNA tests that tie
Artis to the crime scene. Artis tells commission staffers that McCollum
and Brown are innocent.
Sept. 2: Superior
Court judge declares Brown and McCollum innocent after current district
“Time and time again, confessions have proven to
be insufficient and at times inaccurate,” Britt said.
Before agreeing to their release, Britt read aloud the ethics rules
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not
simply that of an advocate,” Britt said. “The prosecutor’s duty is to
seek justice, not merely to convict.”
Britt said his decision was stressful, given that Sabrina’s slaying was
the most notorious in the modern history of Robeson County, and perhaps
of North Carolina. He remembered fellow law students at Campbell
University missing class to attend the trial about “the little girl who
had her underwear stuffed down her throat.”
After a six-hour hearing in the Robeson County courthouse, Sasser, a
judge from nearby Columbus County, read his order from the bench,
throwing out their convictions, declaring them innocent and ordering
their immediate release.
Original prosecutor stunned
Joe Freeman Britt, who prosecuted the brothers in 1984, said he was
stunned by the outcome.
“It’s a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” said Britt. “That
case was fought with powerful arguments, but apparently the district
attorney just threw up his hands and capitulated.”
Ken Snead, a retired SBI agent and lead investigator, said he was
“Someone should have been called today to refute the evidence.”
But I. Beverly Lake Jr., the retired chief justice of the North
Carolina Supreme Court who was instrumental in the creation of the
innocence commission, thought Sasser’s ruling was “wonderful.”
“Justice finally prevailed after 30 years,” Lake said. “But it took way
Rosie Mae Williams, aunt to McCollum and Brown, said her family never
believed for a second that Brown and McCollum were guilty.
“I’ve been praying 31 years,” Williams said. “But right after the
trial, the people wanted to kill them, kill them in a hurry.”