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After 30 years in prison for murder, half-brothers walk free

Henry Lee and his half-brother Leon Brown were released from prison Wednesday, a day after a judge in Robeson County overturned their convictions in the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — One of North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmates was freed from prison Wednesday, less than a day after a judge overturned his conviction for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl because of new DNA evidence in the case.

Henry McCollum, 50, walked out of Central Prison in Raleigh around 9:30 a.m., hugged his mother and father and thanked God for his release.

McCollum spoke briefly to reporters before getting into the passenger seat of his father's car, where a WRAL News photographer had to show him how to buckle the seat belt. He had never used a seat belt of that design.

McCollum said he hoped to go home and take a bath. There will be changes to which he'll need to adjust — particularly the Internet and cellphones, he said.

"I knew one day I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn't know when that time was going to be," McCollum said. "I just thank God that I am out of this place. There's not anger in my heart. I forgive those people and stuff."

His half-brother, Leon Brown, 46, who also had his conviction in the case overturned, walked out of Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County just after 12:30 p.m.

"God is good," Brown said, declining to be interviewed because he was too overwhelmed. He hugged his sister before asking to go for a cheeseburger and milkshake."

Both men were found guilty of the September 1983 death of 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.

Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser, however, overturned the convictions Tuesday, saying the fact that another man's DNA was found on a cigarette butt found near Buie's body contradicted the case originally put forth by prosecutors.

Although the family of McCollum and Brown were elated by the releases, Buie's sister said Wednesday that they've created an emotional nightmare for the victim's family.

"It's painful, it's really painful," Tenita Buie said, adding that she's unable to understand Sasser's ruling and is worried that her sister is being overshadowed by the brothers' release.

"She was a person, and she was someone's child, so she shouldn't be forgotten," Tenita Buie said. "She was very happy, and she had a smile that could light up any room."

Tuesday's judgment was the latest twist in a notorious legal case that began with what defense attorneys said were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time, and Brown was 15.

Both 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.

Defense lawyers petitioned for their release after a recent analysis from the butt pointed to another man, Roscoe Artis, who is in prison for a similar rape and murder of an 18-year-old woman that happened less than a month after Buie's death.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said Wednesday that his office is looking at whether to file charges against the 74-year-old Artis.

McCollum and Brown's freedom hinged largely on Britt's acknowledgement of the strong evidence of their innocence. Britt did not prosecute the men.

"The evidence you heard today, in my opinion, negates the evidence presented at trial," he said during a closing statement before the judge announced his decision.

Even if the men were granted a new trial, Britt said: "Based upon this new evidence, the state does not have a case to prosecute."

About 10 minutes later, Sasser made his ruling.

"We have our sons back, and we thank God that justice was served and they were not guilty," the men’s stepmother, Priscilla McCollum, said. "Never, from Day 1, did I believe they were guilty."


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