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Monday, June 21, 2021

Cleared of murder, brothers are awarded $75 million

Elliot Abrams, a lawyer for the brothers, said that they went through “hell” in prison while the two state investigators who he said had coerced the brothers into confessing to the crime “spent 30 years covering it up.”

By: New York Times |
Updated: May 18, 2021 11:38:17 am
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, half brothers with intellectual disabilities, spent three decades in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl before DNA evidence implicated someone else. (The New York Times)

Two intellectually disabled half brothers who spent more than three decades in prison after they were wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl have been awarded $75 million by a jury in a federal civil rights case in North Carolina.

Henry McCollum, 57, and Leon Brown, 53, spent 30 years, 11 months and seven days in prison before they were freed in 2014. The case against them fell apart after DNA evidence implicated a man who lived a block from where the girl’s body was found and who had admitted to committing a similar crime around the same time.

Elliot Abrams, a lawyer for the brothers, said that they went through “hell” in prison while the two state investigators who he said had coerced the brothers into confessing to the crime “spent 30 years covering it up.”

McCollum and Brown were teenagers when they were found guilty based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, and then spent “the best years of their lives” in prison, said Desmond Hogan, a lawyer for the brothers.

On Friday, a jury in Raleigh, North Carolina, awarded each of them $31 million in compensatory damages — $1 million for each year they spent wrongfully imprisoned. They were also awarded a total of $13 million in punitive damages.

The jury determined that two former state investigators, Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead, had violated McCollum’s constitutional rights by coercing him into confessing to the crime. Snead, the jury found, violated Brown’s constitutional rights by coercing a confession from him.

“There are so many tragedies here,” Abrams said. “You think of all the different times that a single action could have stopped this from happening.”

After finding the body of an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buie, in a soybean field in Red Springs, North Carolina, with her underwear in her throat, investigators from the State Bureau of Investigation and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office went to the nearest house, where they found a man named Roscoe Artis but did not run a background check on him.

Artis later raped and strangled an 18-year-old woman while the brothers were awaiting trial. He was convicted of that crime, and he was eventually investigated in the Buie case, but Joe Freeman Britt, the local district attorney at the time, never told defense lawyers.

With no leads in the Buie case, which was the first murder in Red Springs in four years, the town was desperate for answers, Abrams said. A white schoolgirl told the police that McCollum and Brown, who are Black, were responsible, saying that she suspected them because they acted strangely.

She later recanted, but the accusation led to a five-hour interrogation late at night in which Allen and Snead coerced McCollum into confessing, Abrams said.

Investigators yelled at McCollum, who was 19 at the time but had the mental capacity of a 9-year-old, calling him racial slurs and telling him that he would be sent to the gas chamber if he did not admit to the crime, Abrams said.

At midnight that evening, McCollum’s mother went to the police station, taking Brown, then 15, wondering why her son hadn’t come home. But when she stepped outside, Abrams said, the police took Brown in to interrogate him as well.

A jury sentenced both to be executed. After the state Supreme Court ordered separate retrials, McCollum returned to death row and Brown was sentenced to life in prison.

A lawyer representing Allen and the estate of Snead, who died in 2019, did not respond to a request for comment. In his testimony last week, Allen denied yelling, using racial slurs or coercing the teenagers into confessing to the crime.

McCollum’s decades on death row were painful for him, Abrams said. When a fellow inmate he had grown close with was executed, he said, McCollum saw the man’s body being carted off and had a mental breakdown.

“He understood that his day was coming,” Abrams said.

In 2014, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission announced that new DNA testing of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene matched Artis’ DNA. A Superior Court judge in Robeson County vacated the brothers’ convictions and McCollum’s death sentence, and ordered their release from prison.

The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, which was a defendant in the case, settled with the brothers for $9 million Friday. In 2015, a year after the brothers’ convictions were vacated, the state of North Carolina paid them each $750,000 as compensation for their time spent in prison.

The millions awarded last week will be controlled by court-appointed guardians and will allow the brothers to “begin having some of those experiences that their incarceration has deprived them of,” Abrams said.

McCollum now lives with his fiancée in southern Virginia, Abrams said. Brown lives in a group home in North Carolina and requires 24-hour care.

The brothers, who spent summers together growing up and whose last shared memory before they were sent to prison was racing each other home, may soon be able to resume life together again. McCollum, Hogan said, hopes to move Brown to a home near him in Virginia where they can “rebuild what was taken from them.”

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