The state’s longest-serving death row inmate and his brother, both of whom were exonerated in 2014 after serving 30 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old Robeson County girl in 1983, have been granted pardons of innocence.
N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday announced his decision to pardon 46-year-old Leon Brown and 50-year-old Henry McCollum in the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie. Columbus County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser exonerated the men and ordered their immediate release from prison in September 2014 after their cases were reviewed by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.
Until his exoneration and release, McCollum was the state’s longest serving death row inmate.
James Payne, a defense attorney with offices in Wilmington and Shallotte, was appointed to represent Brown during his hearing to determine if Sasser would grant his release.
“Governor McCrory deserves all of the praise in the world for this careful, deliberate and just decision,” Payne said. “These two men are more than due the governor’s confirmation that they have always been innocent.”
With their pardons, McCollum, who lives in Bolivia, and Brown, who lives in Fayetteville, are entitled to compensation from the state–in this case it’s about $750,000 each, Payne said.
“I know there are differing opinions about this case and who is responsible,” McCrory said in a press release announcing his decision. “This has been a comprehensive and thoughtful process during the past nine months. Based on the available evidence I’ve reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. It’s the right thing to do.”
Payne spoke to Port City Daily about the case following the brothers’ release from prison.
Sabrina Buie was raped and murder in a small Robeson County town of Red Springs; her body left in a soybean field. When law enforcement found her, they determined that she asphyxiated and a stick was found lodged in her throat. Various items of physical evidence–including a cigarette butt that would eventually lead to the brothers’ exonerations–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,” Payne said. “These two boys, at the time, Leon, 15, and Mr. McCollum, 19, signed confessions–so-called–that were written out by law enforcement.”
Both men were prosecuted based upon their confessions about a year later. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to death. They were later retired, separately. McCollum was re-sentenced to death; Brown 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,” Payne said.
In 2009, Brown submitted his request to have his case reviewed by the Innocence Commission. The commission accepted his case and began working on it in 2010.
“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,” Payne said.
The commission has broad powers, including investigatory and the ability to complete testing that may have not been done at the trial level. They acquired the cigarette butt from the field and conducted substantial testing–including DNA testing–on it.
“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,” Payne said.
Four years after the Innocence Commission began working on the case, the men were freed from prison.
“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,” Payne said. “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. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @cgcurran