POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Originally Sentenced to Death, Brothers May Now Be Cleared in North Carolina

Posted on Sep 02, 2014

UPDATE: Both defendants freed after judge overturns convictions. EARLIER: Henry McCollum (l.) and Leon Brown (r.), two brothers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, may soon be freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled - McCollum has an IQ in the 60s and Brown has scored as low as 49 on IQ tests. McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence since their trial, saying they were unaware they were signing a confession. “I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said of his interrogation. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.” In 2010, Brown, who is now serving a life sentence for rape after his murder conviction was thrown out, contacted the Innocence Commission about his case. The Commission found DNA evidence near the crime scene belonging to another man, Roscoe Artis, who was sentenced to death for a crime similar to the one for which McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. (Artis’ sentence was later reduced to life.) On September 2, defense attorneys for Brown and McCollum will present the evidence and ask a Robeson County judge to free both men. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is not opposing the request, said, “The whole case rests on the confessions, and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”

(J. Neff, “New DNA evidence could free two men in notorious Robeson County case,” News and Observer, August 30, 2014). Read Press Release from Defense Attorneys. See Innocence and Intellectual Disability.

Statement of Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center,
on the Exoneration of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown

“The conviction and sentencing to death of two black teenagers with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation), based almost entirely on shaky confessions obtained under extreme duress, sounds like a case from another era. But these men — Henry McCollum and Leon Brown — were freed in North Carolina today. It would be naïve to assume there are no more such cases among the thousands of inmates who remain on death row, or that similar mistakes weren’t made among the nearly 1,400 people who have been executed.

“McCollum and Brown lost 30 years of their lives due to this injustice. If they had been executed as planned, the price would have been infinitely higher. Taking the death penalty off the table would at least guarantee that innocent people will not be executed.”

— Richard Dieter, Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center

September 2, 2014