Two mentally disabled half-brothers in North Carolina have been released from prison after serving 30 years for a crime they did not commit.
BBC News reports Robeson County Superior Court Douglas Sasser ruled Tuesday the two men — Henry McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46 — should be released after DNA evidence implicated another man in the crime.
The two were convicted in 1984 for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, according to The New York Times. They were 15 and 19 at the time and were convicted based on confessions that they later claimed were coerced. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime.
Both were sentenced to death, though Brown’s sentence was later reduced to life in prison.
The DNA evidence that ultimately set them free linked 74-year-old Roscoe Artis to the murder of Buie.
Artis was not a suspect in the murder despite living only blocks away from Buie and having a history of sexual assault convictions. He is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of raping and murdering an 18-year-old girl in the area just weeks after Buie’s murder.
McCollum’s attorney, Ken Rose, expressed dismay that two innocent men could spend so long in prison for a crime they did not commit. He detailed some of of the suffering McCollum underwent on death row.
“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” Rose told The Guardian. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. He would become so distraught he had to be put in isolation. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”
Brown’s attorney, Ann Kirby, echoed some of the same sentiments while expressing some relief that the men have finally received justice.
“This case is a tragedy which has profoundly affected not only the lives of the people involved, but which profoundly affects our system of justice in North Carolina,” she said. “This case highlights in a most dramatic manner the importance of finding the truth. Today truth has prevailed, but it comes 30 years too late for Sabrina Buie and her family, and for Leon, Henry, and their families. Their sadness, grief, and loss will remain with them forever.”
McCollum said in an interview prior to his release, but when exoneration appeared imminent, that he realized the wrongful conviction cost him a lot of years but he was looking forward to his release and living life.
“A long time ago, I wanted to find me a good wife, I wanted to raise a family, I wanted to have my own business and everything,” he said. “I never got a chance to realize those dreams. Now I believe that God is going to bless me to get back out there.”