For Immediate Release: August 31, 2017
For More Information Contact: Gretchen Engel 919-956-9545 or Kristin Collins 919-791-7976
Raleigh, NC — This Saturday marks three years since the biggest exoneration in North Carolina history. Brothers Henry McCollum, who was North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate, and Leon Brown were declared innocent in a Robeson County courtroom on Sept. 2, 2014.
On this anniversary, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, whose attorneys represented McCollum for two decades, have released a new report that tells the full story of the men’s wrongful conviction and exoneration. [Read the full report here.]
“Henry and Leon’s story has so many lessons to teach us,” said CDPL’s Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “It shows us the power that law enforcement and prosecutors have in our system, and how that power can be abused. It shows us how hard it is to uncover a wrongful conviction. It shows us that even cases we think are airtight can get the facts entirely wrong. ”
The report begins with McCollum and Brown’s arrest as vulnerable, intellectually disabled teenagers, and chronicles their trials, as well as the lucky break that led to their exoneration more than 30 years later. DNA testing on a cigarette butt left at the crime scene showed that the true culprit was a serial rapist who lived just feet from where 11-year-old Sabrina Buie’s body was found.
On the day of their exoneration, three years ago:
As the judge spoke the words that would set them free, Leon smiled broadly. But Henry dropped his head and closed his eyes, the heartbreak of the past 30 years etched into his sunken cheeks. In the back of the courtroom, Sabrina Buie’s family held each other and wept. Their daughter had been dead more than three decades, and justice was nowhere to be found.
“This case should be a warning to us of how easy it is to convict the wrong person and never figure out the truth,” Engel said. “Henry and Leon were freed because of a single cigarette butt. What if the killer hadn’t dropped it at the scene, or it had been lost during three decades in storage? They would still be in prison, and Henry might have been executed. Now, think about all the other cases on death row where there is no biological evidence.”
Biological evidence is available in the cases of less than a third of the 144 inmates on North Carolina’s death row. Three-quarters of death row inmates were tried more than 15 years ago, before a series of reforms designed to prevent the conviction of the innocent.
Nine months after their exoneration, McCollum and Brown received a rare pardon of innocence from the governor. The brothers have filed a civil lawsuit over their wrongful convictions, which remains pending.