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Pardoned brothers focused on future

Posted June 5, 2015
Updated June 8, 2015

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— Two men who were pardoned Thursday by Gov. Pat McCrory after spending years on North Carolina's death row for a crime they didn't commit said they want to escape the prison of their past and focus on their future.

Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum, were convicted in the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, whose body was found in a soybean field in the Robeson County town of Red Springs. She was naked except for a bra that had been pushed up against her neck.

Last September, a judge overturned their convictions because of new DNA evidence in the case, and they walked free.

McCrory talked personally with both men as part of his review of the case before granting them pardons of innocence. Brown and McCollum said the pardons mean they no longer have to walk around wondering if people think they're really guilty.

The brothers on Friday thanked the family members who stuck with them during their decades behind bars and said they continue to pray for Buie's family. They also thanked everyone from around the world who sent notes of encouragement via social media, one of the many things they are still trying to figure out.

"My sister, she showed me how to work on a cellphone, a laptop, Facebook and all that stuff," McCollum said.

The hardest part of his incarceration was living day to day on death row.

"You don't know when your time is going to come," he said. "You don't know when they going to call you down there to that captain's office and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry. Your appeals ran out. The warden has set you a new execution date.'"

Both men were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial in the 1990s, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.

Brown was 15 when he was sent to prison – McCollum was 19 – and he said the most difficult time for him came two years ago, when he learned that his mother had died and that he wouldn't be able to tell her goodbye.

"She told me (that), when I got out of prison, she was going to take me shopping and buy the whole mall for me," he recalled of their last conversation. "After she said that, the next thing I heard (was), 'Report to the chapel office. They said your mother passed.'"

While the brothers said they will never forget their 31 years in prison, they aren't bitter about it.

"It was all through the grace of God that I made it this far," Brown said. "I thank God that I'm home with my family. I've got a family that loves me. They supported me while I was incarcerated, so I really got a lot to look forward to."

The pardons will allow the brothers to receive up to $750,000 in compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment. The compensation must first be approved by a review board.

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