2 Brothers, One Facing the Death Penalty, Exonerated After 30 Years Behind Bars

"It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”

Henry Lee McCollum listens as he is declared innocent after serving over 30 years on death row. (Screenshot via WRAL)

After spending over 30 years behind bars, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown— two African-American half brothers who faced the death penalty and life in prison respectively — were set free on Wednesday after a DNA test proved that the men had no connection to the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl for which they were accused, charged and convicted.

Attorneys for Brown and McCollum, who were 15 and 19 at the time of the arrest, said that the police department of Red Springs, North Carolina had coerced the then-teenagers, who are both diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, into signing false confessions after hours of interrogations.

“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” said Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, who has represented McCollum for 20 years. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. He would become so distraught he had to be put in isolation. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”

The Robeson County Superior Court judge dismissed all charges on Tuesday after a morning hearing during which the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency, presented the results of its investigation, including DNA testing of items found at the crime scene.

According to a statement released by Brown and McCollum's defense, the Commission found that none of the items could be traced to the two men. Instead, critical DNA evidence matched another individual named Roscoe Artis, a convicted rapist and murderer who lived less than 100 yards from where the body of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was found.

After the charges were dropped, the packed court room "erupted in applause and tears," the News & Observer reports. “I thank God for the strength to carry me through 31 years,” McCollum, who had been North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmate, told the paper. Despite being freed, prison officials insisted the brothers spend one last night behind bars.

“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,” said Ann Kirby, co-counsel for Leon Brown.

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