Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were taken from their homes in rural Robeson County, coerced into confessing to a brutal murder they had nothing to do with, and sentenced to death. The half-brothers spent 31 years in prison before DNA testing finally proved them innocent.
DNA testing by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission proved beyond a doubt that that they had been wrongly convicted for the murder of Sabrina Buie, an 11-year-old who was raped and suffocated in the Robeson County town of Red Springs. The testing showed that the true killer was Roscoe Artis, a convicted rapist and murderer who lived next door to the field where Sabrina’s body was found. Artis is a serial rapist who was sent to death row for murdering another young woman, less than a month after Sabrina’s murder, in eerily similar circumstances.
On Sept. 2, 2014, District Attorney Johnston Britt told a judge he no longer had any credible evidence against McCollum and Brown. That day, the judge took the rare step of not just setting aside their convictions, but also declaring them innocent. At the time of his exoneration, McCollum was North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate. Brown had been resentenced and was serving life.
The long-delayed DNA test finally corrected a wrong that began in 1983, shortly after Sabrina’s body was found in a soybean field. Police began asking Red Springs residents whether the girl had been seen with anyone from out of town. A high school student mentioned an unfounded rumor she had heard about Henry, who was in town from New Jersey to visit his mother. The investigation quickly zeroed in on him. At first, Henry told police he had nothing to do with the killing. But on the night of September 28, 1983, Henry was taken to the Red Springs Police Department and locked in an interrogation room with police officers, Robeson County sheriff’s deputies, and SBI agents. They questioned him for five hours, during which they repeatedly promised Henry that he could leave if he gave them the information they wanted. His mother, weeping in the hallway and begging to see her son, was not allowed into the room.
At 2:00 the next morning, Henry signed a confession saying he and his half-brother Leon had been part of a group of boys who raped and killed Sabrina Buie. There was no videotape or audio recording of the confession. Instead, Henry signed a statement written by law enforcement, containing details fed to him by a crime scene investigator. Afterward, having no understanding of the consequences of his confession, he asked, “Can I go home now?” Half an hour later, after hearing of Henry’s confession and being threatened with the death penalty, Leon also signed a confession. Leon was 15 and Henry 19, and both had intellectual disabilities that allowed them to be easily coerced into making false statements. Neither had a guardian or lawyer with them when they confessed.
Quick Facts: Henry McCollum & Leon Brown
Race: African American
Date of Crime: September 24th, 1983
Victim: Sabrina Buie, African American, Age 11
Conviction Date: October 25, 1984
Exoneration Date: September 2, 2014
Years incarcerated: Nearly 31
Years on death row: Henry McCollum – 30 years, Leon Brown – 9 years
Real Perpetrator Found: Yes
Errors: Police coerced the two intellectually disabled teenagers into giving false confessions and failed to investigate other suspects, including a man who confessed to a similar crime in the area less than a month after Sabrina’s murder.
No physical evidence tied Henry and Leon to the murder. Their confessions were not consistent with each other, and the other teens they implicated had alibis and could not possibly have been involved — facts that should have cast doubt on the confessions and prompted further investigation. Instead, then-Robeson County District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, who was known as the “World’s Deadliest DA” for his aggressive pursuit of death sentences, tried Henry and Leon for their lives. At trial, law enforcement officers doomed Henry and Leon by testifying that they volunteered all details in their confessions. This was patently false; a crime scene investigator who had witnessed Sabrina Buie’s autopsy was involved in the interrogations and filled in the details for them. Because of this false testimony, a jury sentenced Henry and Leon to death. (At that time, there were no protections to stop children from being sent to death row.) They received new trials in 1991, when the courts decided it was improper for the brothers to have been tried together. Leon’s charge was reduced to rape and he was resentenced to life, but Henry was again sentenced to death.
During the past 15 years, Henry’s attorneys have pressed for DNA testing. In 2005, testing of a cigarette butt, which was found alongside bloody sticks used in the murder, showed that the DNA did not match Henry or Leon. However, the test result could not be compared with other offenders in the state’s database. It took the intervention of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2010, which took the case at Leon’s request, to finally compel the necessary testing. The Commission performed a different type of DNA testing, which allowed the DNA from the cigarette butt to be compared with the offender database. The result was a definitive match with Roscoe Artis.
In retrospect, it was a stunning lapse that police did not charge Artis with Sabrina Buie’s murder at the time. Artis was a serial rapist with convictions dating back to 1957, and he lived next door to the field where Sabrina’s body was found. Less than a month after Sabrina’s murder, Artis confessed to the rape and murder of 18-year-old Joann Brockman, also in Red Springs, a town of only 4,000 people. Just like Sabrina, Brockman was lured to a rural area to drink alcohol, then asphyxiated and left in a field near Artis’ home wearing only a bra, which had been lifted above her shoulders. Sticks were used as weapons in both crimes. District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt prosecuted Artis for Brockman’s murder just a month before Henry and Leon’s trial, and Artis received a death sentence. What’s more, Artis also had a warrant for his arrest in Gaston County, where police believed he had committed another rape and murder in which the victim was asphyxiated and left wearing only a bra. (After Artis received a death sentence for Brockman’s murder, Gaston County officials declined to prosecute him for the other murder.)
Artis was never mentioned at the trial. However, newly released documents showed that the similarities between Sabrina’s murder and other crimes committed by Roscoe Artis did not go unnoticed by law enforcement. In July 2014, as part of the Innocence Inquiry Commission’s investigation, the Robeson County District Attorney’s Office voluntarily released Henry’s full case file. The file included many documents that Henry and Leon’s attorneys had never seen before. One was a request from the Red Springs Police Department, made three days before Henry and Leon’s 1984 trial, asking the SBI to test a fingerprint from a beer can at the Sabrina Buie crime scene to see if it belonged to Roscoe Artis. The fact that there were unanswered questions about who was involved in the crime should have raised red flags for the district attorney. But he went forward with Henry and Leon’s trial anyway, and the testing was never completed. Artis — who lived for a time on death row with Henry and Leon, and even forged a friendship with them — has repeatedly told attorneys and other inmates that Henry and Leon had nothing to do with Sabrina’s murder. The courts eventually reduced Artis’ sentence to life in prison, and he remains incarcerated.
The documents turned over in July also showed that a witness who testified against Henry and Leon at their trial perjured himself. L.P. Sinclair, a known criminal, testified at the trial that Henry confessed to Sabrina’s murder. However, in several earlier undisclosed interviews with police, Sinclair said that he knew nothing about the crime. Sinclair even passed a police polygraph test saying that he had no knowledge of the murder. None of these prior statements, nor the lie detector test, were mentioned in court or disclosed to Henry and Leon’s attorneys.
During his three decades on death row, Henry proclaimed his innocence to anyone who would listen. He also suffered immensely. As a convicted child sex offender, he was targeted for violence and harassment by other inmates. And with his intellectual disabilities, he was easily taken advantage of by others. Especially during his early years of imprisonment, he was suicidal. When other inmates were executed, Henry would become so upset that guards would put him in isolation to ensure that he didn’t hurt himself. His mother and grandmother, who helped to raise him, both died while he was imprisoned.
In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted the brothers a full pardon of innocence. They are still pursuing civil damages against the authorities who wrongfully imprisoned them. Also that year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.