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DNA Evidence Exonerates Men after 30 Years; Justice Scalia's Death Penalty Example is Innocent

(L) Henry McCollum, (R) Leon Brown, half-brothers exonerated by new DNA evidence produced by the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission

Two innocent men, wrongly convicted thirty years ago, walked out of prison as free men earlier this week. Leon Brown and Henry McCollum signed false statements in 1983 – confessing to the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.  The crime happened in Red Springs – a town in Robeson County of less than four-thousand people.  The two intellectually-disabled men were sentenced to death when they were 16 and 20 years old. 

After five years, Brown’s sentence was altered to life in prison, but McCollum remained on Death Row.   Attorney James Payne represented Leon Brown when a judge heard new DNA evidence on September 2nd. 


JP:  Judge Douglas B. Sasser Superior Court Judge presiding in Robeson County set free two men who were wrongly convicted of a brutal rape and murder of Sabrina Buie back in 1983.

RLH:  Why did he set them free?

JP:  Judge Sasser found in his order that there was substantial evidence that the men were innocent and, the District Attorney, Mr. Johnson Britt, who deserves great credit, told the court that the men, at a minimum, should have a new trial and that there was no way he could prosecute either of these two men again.

RLH:  You’ve said that there was no physical evidence in 1983 that could connect these two men to the crime scene – no physical evidence.  How did they get convicted?

JP:  They were convicted based upon their false confessions and by the testimony of a subsequently discredited witness who allegedly said that – and testified – that the defendants had made certain admissions.

RLH:  And they do have a suspect now.  This DNA evidence links someone else, actually, to this crime scene.

JP:  Yes, there is  a DNA result that Judge Sasser, again referenced in his order, particularly in the cigarette butt that was found amongst the crime scene that has been linked to another individual.

RLH:  Will that individual be charged with this crime?

JP:  That’s up to the District Attorney. 

RLH:  It took a while to bring this new evidence forward.  Can you tell us why it took 30 years?

JP:  Not until approximately 2009 did these two men have the ability to bring to the Court’s attention the evidence that ultimately set them free.  In 2009, Leon Brown, my client, petitioned the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is a neutral, fact-finding body.  He petitioned that Commission to investigate his case.  They accepted it, conducted the investigation, beginning in 2010, and ultimately developed the evidence that the Court was able to hear and the evidence that set them free.

RLH:  Did we not have the science 30 years ago to figure out that the DNA would have exonerated these men in 1984?  Why did it take until he could petition the Innocence Inquiry Commission?

JP:  Part of the answer is exactly what you said – that, in 1984 we did not have the ability to do the testing that the Innocence Inquiry Commission was able to get conducted.

RLH:  Can you take us back to 1983?  What would make an innocent person sign a confession?

JP:  We know now that there are many psychological reasons that would cause a person to admit to something that they did not do.  Take this case, for instance:  two young boys, 15 and 19, locked in a room with two or three or four law enforcement officers, very seasoned law enforcement officers, not allowed to leave, not allowed to have a lawyer there.  And we now know that both Leon and Mr. McCollum were mentally retarded.

Mr. Brown, 15 years old, was operating at the intellectual level of a 7-year-old. 

RLH:  Did we know that back then?

JP:  The jury heard it. 

And what is also significant is that both men now have maintained that they were told, “If you just sign it and admit to what you did, you’ll go home.”

Mr. McCollum, after he signed a statement that he didn’t write out, got up to walk out of the room.

Now you think about that.  He’s just signed a statement allegedly admitting to committing a murder and a rape.  And he gets up to walk out of the room to go home.

RLH:  And then what happened?

JP:  Law enforcement officers said, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going home.”

“Uh, no.  You’re under arrest.”

And he’s been in custody ever since.

RLH:  Is that okay?  If that happened today, and if we had that on tape… I’m assuming we don’t have any of this on videotape or audiotape?

JP:  Right.

RLH:  But if we did, would that be proper protocol for an officer?

JP:  To promise him he could go home?

RLH:  Yes.

JP:  I don’t believe so.  Now let me back up – because that’s a good question – had we had it.

Today, when a person is charged with a homicide or being investigated for a homicide, being interrogated, law enforcement must audiotape it and, if available, videotape it.  We didn’t have that law back then.

RLH:  So we really have no idea what happened in that room before those boys signed the confessions. 

JP:  That’s correct. 

One other thing is very interesting to note.  In the room of Mr. McCollum’s interrogation was the crime scene investigator who knew all of the intimate details of the scene of the crime because he attended the autopsy.  The idea was, well, Mr. McCollum wouldn’t be able to talk about those things and admit to them if he wasn’t the one who was present.  But we know now that the very crime scene investigator is the one who was present in the interrogation room. 

RLH:  Is there any recourse now for Leon Brown or Henry McCollum?

JP:  The next possible procedure for both of these men is to petition the Governor of the State of North Carolina for a pardon of innocence.

RLH:  Is there anything for us to learn from this?

JP:  I’m certain there are many lessons.  I think that the lesson must consider the death penalty because there Mr. McCollum sat for 30 years.  There Mr. Brown sat for five.  Wrongly convicted for a crime they didn’t commit, subject to being executed by this state.  Mr. McCollum saw some 40 folks or so taken and led away to their last breath.  We have to seriously reconsider the death penalty because there is no going back.  That’s final.  And for Mr. McCollum, it could have been final.

RLH:  Is it true that a Supreme Court Judge held this case up as an example in favor of the death penalty?

JP:  That was an opinion in which Justice Scalia and one other Justice were having their typical back-and-forth in their opinions.  And it was his opinion that this was an example of why we should have the death penalty.

RLH:  Can you give us a feel for what life might have been like in prison for Leon Brown and Henry McCollum?

JP:  Certainly.  On Death Row, it’s certainly more confining.  When you’re on Death Row, you wear a red suit.  You are very limited in your phone contacts.  You never touch your family member – ever.  You are visited behind a glass.  You are led in shackles from your cell to the visitation room.  You’re told to get up, when to go to sleep, when to eat, and you just sit there and wait until it’s your turn. 

RLH:  Where are these two men going now?  What were they waiting to do when they got out of prison?

JP:  I like to tell about Mr. Brown.  [chuckle] He’s a man of few words – a lot of smiles now – but a man of few words. 

And the first thing he wanted to do was to go to McDonald’s and have a hamburger and milk shake. 

RLH:  James Payne, thank you so much.

JP:  Thank you.


The DNA evidence could implicate a convicted serial murderer and rapist who lived near the area where Sabrina Buie's body was found.   The new suspect, Roscoe Artis, is serving a life sentence in prison for the murder of an 18-year-old in 1983.  He is eligible for a parole review in 2015. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.