LUMBERTON, NC (WMBF) – Two half-brothers who were convicted for raping and killing an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina 30 years ago have been cleared of all charges and will be released from jail Tuesday night.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, now middle-aged, were locked up when they were in their teens. The details of the death of Sabrina Buie that led to their conviction are graphic.
Multiple times during Tuesday's hearing, details were brought up regarding foreign objects shoved down Sabrina's throat. Found during an autopsy, these items included her underwear and a stick, believed to be pushed down her throat until she suffocated.
Just one month after her brutal rape and murder, a similar incident occurred in the area. The half-brothers were already behind bars, while a man named Roscoe Artis was questioned for the second case. According to Sharon Stellato, the Associate Director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, Artis knew details about Sabrina's death that were not public knowledge.
While on the stand, Stellato said at one point Artis claimed he wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night, leave his home at one or two in the morning to harm the girl, then return home to go to bed. Stellato's point was Artis was never told Sabrina's time of death.
Stellato and the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission became involved in the case when Leon Brown wrote a letter to the Commission asking for help to prove his innocence. Stellato said Brown and his half brother, Henry McCollum, always maintained their innocence throughout the years.
The Commission presented new DNA evidence that it believes connects Artis to the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie. Stellato said he even admitted to knowing the 11-year-old, that he saw her often when she would ride her bike past his house, even bringing him cigarettes from a nearby store.
Details discussed of his interview show he was caught in inconsistencies with his story after Sabrina was found murdered. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for the murder that happened the month after her death, which McCollum and Brown were found guilty of 30 years ago.
"They had that man's finger prints, they didn't go through with it, and that allowed another man to go free and kill someone else," said Joseph Morrison, Brown and McCollum's cousin.
Tuesday's re-trial also focused on the low IQs of McCollum and Brown, showing they had elementary-level reading and writing skills at the time they signed a long written confession into the death of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie.
After hours of evidence being presented, the judge called for a break before hearing the closing arguments. The family called out 'I love you' to the brothers before a tense silence covered the courtroom. After closing arguments, the judge made an announcement that the family waited decades to hear: the brothers were being cleared of their charges, they were being freed.
The courtroom broke out into applause. Family members cried, they embraced, they rejoiced. They also pined for the life the two brothers lost while behind bars. Their mom died just last year, never knowing if her son's would be proven innocent.
"I'm sad but I'm glad they're coming home. It took 30 years, we waited, was patient, we've been through a lot, we just want them to be home and happy again," said Morrison through tears after hearing the judge's decision.
Morrison said the system failed the brothers, the system failed the little girl killed.
"For them to be convicted for 30 years, never should have happened. And for those who lost their little girl, never should have lost them," said Morrison.
The brothers have to return to the facilities they are being held in to be processed before being released to their families, finally free after 30 years.