Criminal Justice

After 30 years in prison, two inmates win their freedom in 1983 rape and murder

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Two mentally disabled North Carolina inmates who confessed to the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl have been freed from prison after DNA pointed to another possible suspect.

Judge Douglas Sasser ordered the release of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown on Tuesday, declaring them innocent, report the National Law Journal, the New York Times, the News & Observer and the Robesonian. The two inmates, half brothers who are mentally disabled, served 30 years in prison after their convictions. McCollum was on death row, and Brown was serving a life sentence.

McCollum and Brown had recanted their confessions at trial.

Prosecutors had argued in the trials of the half brothers that the killer had left a cigarette butt at the crime scene. When the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency, investigated the case, it found DNA on the cigarette butt matched that of Roscoe Artis, who lived near the crime scene. Artis is now serving a life sentence for a different rape and murder that occurred weeks after the murder of the 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie.

Sharon Stellato of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission testified on Tuesday that Artis told her Brown and McCollum would not be in prison if police had done their job. Artis did not confess to the rape and murder of Buie, however. No physical evidence tied McCollum and Brown to the crime.

The lawyer who prosecuted McCollum and Brown, Joe Freeman Britt, told the News & Observer that he was stunned by the judge’s decision to release the two inmates. “It’s a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” Britt said. “That case was fought with powerful arguments, but apparently the district attorney just threw up his hands and capitulated.”

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