(Lumberton, N.C) — Two North Carolina men were released from prison last week after having spent more than 30 years behind bars for a crime that the courts and prosecutors now believe they did not commit. Henry McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown had both spent time on North Carolina’s death row for the 1983 murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie.
The key break in the case came only this year when previously unidentified DNA from the crime scene was finally run through the CODIS database. The search produced a hit on a man named Roscoe Artis, a career criminal with a long history of crimes which bore striking similarities to the Buie murder.
Artis, now 74, is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of 18-year-old Joann Brockman, which occurred only a month after Buie’s death. At the time of the crime he lived only a few hundred yards from where Buie’s body was found. The link to Artis was hardly unknown at the time of the original trial. Both cases had been prosecuted by the same District Attorney, Joe Freeman Britt. According to the Guinness World Book of Records, his 47 death row convictions are the most for any US prosecutor. Britt is a flamboyant local figure who even now still believes that Brown and McCollum are guilty.
At the time of the Brockman killing, Artis had spent almost all of the past 25 years in prison. There was also a warrant for his arrest for the 1980 murder of Bernice Moss. Prosecutors apparently never pursued that case when it became clear he would spend the rest of his life in prison for the Brockman killing. His other assaults occurred in 1957, 1967, and 1974. All involved teenage girls and included attempts at strangulation and sexual assault, both present in the Buie murder.
No physical evidence or eye-witness testimony ever linked Brown or McCollum to the crime. The entire case against the two was their statement to police.
Both McCollum and Brown had provided confessions during difficult interrogations. Their case will undoubtedly become important for those who study the role of false confessions in miscarriages of justice. According to Saul Kassin of John Jay College, false confessions play a part in about a quarter of all undisputed miscarriages of justice. Both defendants are described as mentally challenged which presumably means that they were more vulnerable to skilled interrogators than most. Other well known cases of false confessions include Jeffrey Deskovic and the Central Park Five.
The Buie killing was seen as one of the most notorious in North Carolina history. The case had even been cited by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in an argument about why the death penalty was necessary. McCollum’s face was also prominently featured on a 2010 Republican Party poster asking for tougher policy on crime.
Since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976 about 30 people sentenced to death have been later been exonerated and released. Both Brown and McCollum walked out of prison last week. To their family and friends it was not a moment too soon.