FAYETTEVILLE, NC (WMBF) - A stroll down their quiet suburban neighborhood street in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is something 51-year-old Henry McCollum and his half-brother 47-year-old Leon Brown will never take for granted.
“Well it’s been a really changing year for me," said Brown.
"I adjust quickly and I thank God for that, it feels good to walk down the street with my head held high without having to look over my shoulders," said McCollum.
The half brothers were sent to prison for 31 years for a crime they didn't commit. They were granted full pardons by the Governor of North Carolina a little more than a year ago.
But their hell began back in 1983 when they were arrested for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Bui, an area child who often walked and played in the Red Springs neighborhood of Robeson County where she was found dead in a field - underwear stuffed down her throat, bloodied and raped.
The brothers’ attorney says the aggressive tactics Red Springs Police detectives used led to the confessions. The brothers later recanted those confessions, but ultimately it got Leon life in prison and Henry put on death row.
“The only way I made it through death row was the power of God," said McCollum.
The brothers’ fate took a turn in 2009 when the North Carolina Inquiry Commission used advancements of technology to re-examine their case. The organization was able to find evidence that proves who the real killer is. A fingerprint found on a cigarette butt matched Roscoe Artus, a man who was already on death row for the rape and murder of another female. In an ironic twist, Artus was in the same prison, in the same cell block, as McCollum and befriended Henry while they were behind bars.
"How can you walk around me, laugh and joke in my face ,and it don’t bother your conscious to know you went out there and killed that young girl?" asked McCollum.
Throughout the ordeal, the brothers maintained their innocence and never gave up hope that one day justice would be served. That day came just over a year ago when the brothers were released from prison.
“Your lawyer comes to you with good news like that, it was hard for me to believe. I gasps, and I didn’t sleep for like two or three nights," he said.
But their release was followed by a new uphill journey; adjusting to life on the outside. The two live with their sister in Fayetteville; she has taken on the role of caretaker, ensuring Leon takes his psychotropic medications, oversees their finances and gets the two acquainted with society in 2015.
“My sister, the first thing she taught me was about Facebook on the cell phone and once I got the hang of it, I started working and typing and texting and all that stuff,” said McCollum.
Memories of things they missed while in prison, like the passing of their mother, sit on end tables in the family's living room, along with their certificates of pardon; while checks from the state paying them $750,000 each, about $24,000 for each year they served in prison, are on the way.
Their lawyer, Patrick Megaro, says that's not enough.
“What it doesn’t account for is the intangibles," said Megaro. "How can you put a price on your sister’s wedding, or seeing your niece or nephew born, being with your mother when she passes? These are things that are priceless."
Megaro helped speed up the pardon process and initiate the payout when things stalled after the brothers' release. He also filed a civil lawsuit back in August against Robeson County, the town of Red Springs and several officers involved in the interrogation at the time, including the current sheriff, Kenneth Sealy. We contacted the sheriff’s office about the suit and what happened that fateful day back in ‘83, but we haven’t heard back. If the brothers win their civil suit they could get millions of dollars, but they'll never get back those 31 years.
“I don’t have no hate in my heart toward them but I don’t like what they did to me and my brother 31 years ago, destroyed my life. We could’ve been somebody," said McCollum.
Henry is working on a series of memoirs and wants a family one day. Leon wants the same, and says he’s gradually learning to adapt to society. The two recently took a trip a trip to Disney World for the first time.
Click the link to read a related story:
Wrongly Convicted: Two brothers freed 30 years later