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McCrory pardons former death row inmates cleared in 1983 murder

Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday granted pardons to two former death row inmates who were cleared last fall in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday granted pardons to two former death row inmates who were cleared last fall in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum, walked out of prison on Sept. 3, a day after a judge overturned their convictions because of new DNA evidence in the case.

The men, who were two of North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmates, were found guilty in the 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.

McCrory said he talked personally with each brother as part of his review of the case. He declined to discuss details of the meetings, saying it was one aspect of the decision making that led to the pardons.

"This has been a very comprehensive and thoughtful process during the past nine months," he said. "Based upon the available evidence that I have personally reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. It is the right thing to do."

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

In a statement released through their attorney, the brothers thanked McCrory and said they are praying for justice and peace for the victim's family.

"For the 31 years we were imprisoned for a crime we did not commit, we never lost faith that justice would prevail and that God, our family and our supporters would set us free," they said. "Today we put the past behind us with not just a clear conscience, but a clear name, committed to living a good life and doing God's work."

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

Defense attorneys argued that the case hinged on coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time of the murder, and Brown was 15.

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.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began an independent investigation, requesting DNA testing of the cigarette butt. Defense lawyers petitioned for the brothers' release after an 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.

The prosecutor acknowledged strong evidence of the brothers' innocence, and the judge released them.

"It is difficult for anyone to know for certain what happened the night of Sabrine Buie's murder," McCrory said, extending his sympathy to the girl's family.

When McCollum walked out of Central Prison in Raleigh in September, he hugged his mother and father and thanked God for his release.

"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 the day of his release. "I just thank God that I am out of this place. There's not anger in my heart. I forgive those people and stuff."

Several hours later, Brown walked out of Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County.

"God is good," Brown said at the time, hugging his sister before asking to go for a cheeseburger and milkshake.

Ken Rose, a senior attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation who represented McCollum for 20 years, said the brothers' case highlights how difficult it is to ascertain the truth about many inmates sitting on death row.

"Many of my clients were tried before modern death penalty reforms, using evidence that wouldn’t even be admissible today," he said. "Physical evidence has been lost, or was never gathered in the first place, so it can’t be tested for DNA. Witnesses have died."


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