Half-brothers to go free after convictions overturned in 1983 murder
Posted September 2
Updated September 3
Lumberton, N.C. — A judge in Robeson County on Tuesday ordered that two half-brothers – one of whom is on death row – imprisoned for 30 years for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl be set free after newly discovered evidence shows someone else likely was responsible for the crime.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the convictions of Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, for the September 1983 death of Sabrina Buie based on DNA analysis of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene.
Buie was found dead in a Red Springs soybean field, naked except for a bra pushed up against her neck. A short distance away, police found the cigarette butt as well as two bloody sticks.
McCollum, who was 19 at the time, and his half-brother Brown, who was 15, confessed to killing Buie. Both men were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted only of rape and sentenced to life in prison.
A review of the case by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission uncovered the DNA evidence, which, test results showed, were linked to another man who's currently serving life in prison for a similar rape and murder.
McCollum and Brown's family members – some of whom hadn't seen the men since they were convicted – packed the Robeson County courtroom for Tuesday's daylong hearing.
They were elated by Sasser's ruling.
"We waited years and years," their father, James McCollum, said. "We have kept the faith waiting on God to make the move. He made the move, and they're released."
"Our prayers go out for Sabrina Buie's family. We're praying for them," his wife, Priscilla McCollum, said. "We are so glad that this justice was served and the truth finally came forth. We thank God for that, and we're going to go on with our lives."
Defense attorneys for the pair argued that there was no physical evidence connecting McCollum and Brown to Buie's death – fingerprints on a beer can found at the crime scene also couldn't be matched to them.
Both men have low IQs, their attorneys said, and their confessions – the only evidence against them – were coerced after hours of questioning.
Instead, the DNA from the cigarette matches Roscoe Artis, 74, who is serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old woman just a few miles away, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree.
Artis also was convicted of assaulting three other women over 30 years before his last conviction. The fingerprint on the can found near Buie had not been checked with his prints as of last week.
District Attorney Johnson Britt acknowledged the DNA discovery in court papers, and said he does not intend to file any other charges against McCollum and Brown.
Complicating matters even more was the discovery last month of a box of evidence from the original trial at the small Red Springs police station that authorities thought was lost.
Brown's lawyer, Ann Kirby, called the case alarming.
"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 in a statement released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
"This case highlights in a most dramatic manner the importance of finding the truth," she continued. "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."