Wrongly Convicted: Two brothers freed 30 years later
ROBESON COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - When a young girl was brutally raped and murdered over 30 years ago, police in the small town of Red Springs, North Carolina were quick to make an arrest. But in their haste, they nabbed the wrong people.
For 30 years, two brothers sat in prison for a crime they didn't commit. WMBF News' Theo Hayes took a detailed look at the case, and what's next for the brothers.
In 1983, 11-year-old Sabrina Bui's body was found naked in a Robeson County soybean field. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were sent to prison for more than 30 years for a crime that DNA evidence would later prove they didn't commit.
The details of Sabrina Bui's death are horrific. On a Saturday evening in September, Sabrina had been playing Pac-Man like she always did at the Hardins Grocery store, just a few miles from her home.
But on that night she wouldn't return.
Instead she was raped in a field, and her underwear stuffed down her throat with a tree limb until she stopped breathing. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt says the next day, a search party was formed.
"Mr. Evans, a family friend, sees and finds a vest, a hair bow, and they start looking around and notice an area that appears to be mashed down," Britt says. "They walk over there, and there's Sabrina, sprawled on the ground, naked and obviously dead."
At the crime scene, evidence included empty Beer cans, a jar of Vaseline, Sabrina Bui's hair bow, the plywood they believe she was raped on, bloody sticks, and what would later become the most important piece of evidence of all, a cigarette butt.
At the time, fingerprints were found on the beer cans. One was the victim's, the others are unidentifiable.
But investigators got something else they needed for a conviction: a confession.
Henry McCollum, then 17 years old, and 15-year-old Leon Brown, who lived in Sabrina's neighborhood, signed the police-drafted confession, went to trial, and were convicted.
McCollum was sentenced to death. Brown got life in prison.
"The reason they confessed is because of law enforcement tactics," says Attorney Kenneth Rose, the senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Raleigh, who also represents Henry McCollum. He says the confessions were coerced.
During questioning, versions of what happened changed. Records show the brothers' story went from they didn't do it, to their distant cousin said he wanted to have sex with her, to admitting to the rape but placing partial blame on the cousin for the murder.
"Law enforcement brought them in and badgered them and badgered them saying 'we know you did it,'" Rose explains.
Although there was no physical evidence linking the brothers to the crime, and they recanted the signed confession during trial, it was too late.
In 1991 and 92 there was a retrial, but it wasn't until 2009 when their fate would begin to take a turn. From behind bars, Brown wrote a letter to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only agency of its kind in the nation, asking for their help.
"The NC Innocence Inquiry Commission is a state agency, and our job is to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims for factual innocence," says Kendra Montgomery Blinn, with the commission.
Blinn, Sharon Stellato, and the team at the commission reviewed the case for four years and spent more than $87,000 testing the evidence. Thanks to advancements in DNA technology, they found a fingerprint on the cigarette butt, never been seen before, and that cracked the case.
Stellato says that a hit from the butt "came back to a man that had been linked to a murder that happened three weeks later in the same town."
Rosco Artus is currently serving life in prison for the brutal murder of another girl. At the time of Sabrina's murder, he lived with his sister in a blue house right next to the soybean field where Sabrina's body was found.
In September of this year, 31 years after they were convicted in the very same courtroom, a judge overturned Henry McCollum's and Leon Brown's convictions, and the brothers were set free.
"They are still adjusting and they want their privacy, and they are still feeling the foreign nature of just being out of prison," Rose says.
The brothers have filed a petition with the governor of North Carolina for a pardon, and if granted, they'll each receive up to $750,000 for their wrongful conviction.
"There are two sad aspects to this case," District Attorney Britt says. "One is that McCollum and Brown spent the vast majority of their lives locked up, and the bigger sadness is that Sabrina Bui's parents lost their daughter and have lived through one trial, and to have it all reopened opens a very nasty wound."
While the brothers wait on the outcome of their petition for their pardon, the DA says a civil suit against the Red Springs Police Department, and others, will likely follow.
Authorities say they plan to go after Roscoe Artus for Sabrina Bui's Murder. The Bui family declined comment.
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