LUMBERTON, N.C. (WTVD) --A Robeson County courtroom erupted in cheers and tears Tuesday afternoon, after half-brothers who have spent 30 years in prison for the killing and rape of an 11-year-old Robeson County girl were ordered to be set free by a judge. The order came after they asked their convictions be overturned based on DNA analysis of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene.
Lawyers for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation -- who represent 50-year-old Henry McCollum and 46-year-old Leon Brown -- told the judge a man serving a life sentence for a similar rape and slaying that happened less than a month later is the real killer of Sabrina Buie in 1983.
District Attorney Johnson Britt acknowledged the DNA discovery in court papers. He said evidence from the original trial is being tested again and he hasn't decided whether he will take the men to trial again.
"I know it was a travesty of justice, and they're starting to break all of that down," said the brothers' cousin, Ted Morrison, following the judgment. "What they're going to do from here on out, God only knows, but I pray they find something. Some purpose."
Buie was found dead in a Robeson County soybean field, naked except for a bra pushed up against her neck. A short distance away, police found two bloody sticks and a cigarette butt.
Authorities said McCollum, who was 19 at the time, and his half-brother Brown, who was 15, confessed to killing Buie. Both men were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row, where he remained until Tuesday, while Brown was only convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
But lawyers for the defendants said there is no physical evidence connecting them to the crime. The DNA from the cigarette butts doesn't match either of them, and fingerprints taken from a beer can at the scene aren't theirs either. Attorneys said both men have low IQs equivalent to fourth graders and their confessions were coerced after hours of questioning.
"At the age of 15 being mentally challenged? With no legal representation and no parent there and they're going to tell me they asked you to sign something [a confession]?" asked an exasperated Morrison. "Come on now."
Instead, the DNA from the cigarette matches Roscoe Artis, 74, who is serving a life sentence for the rape and killing of an 18-year-old woman just a few miles away, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree.
The other man also was convicted of assaulting three other women over 30 years before his last conviction. The fingerprint on the can found near Buie had not been checked with his prints a week before the hearing was set to begin.
Sharon Stellato, the lead investigator with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, testified that Artis's account about knowing Buie changed drastically over the course of three recent interviews. He went from telling the commission he didn't know the little girl to describing frequent exchanges with her, and implicating the time of her death.
"At no time did we provide details of her murder to him," said Stellato. "And certainly not a 2-3 a.m. window of when the victim could have been killed."
But those were things Stellato said Artis described. He also had a number of inconsistencies about his last interaction with the child the day she went missing. Stellato said Artis always said McCollum and Brown were not Buie's killers, and "if the police had done their job [they] wouldn't be in prison."
"He saying 'I don't know nothing about the murder, but they didn't do it.' Come on," said Morrison. "He clearing his conscious. He saying 'if ya'll had did ya'll job, you would've came across the street and got me. Swabbed me. Matched me. And took me away.'"
"You left him on the street, one murder too long," he continued.
Complicating matters even more was the discovery last month of a box of evidence from the original trial at the small Red Springs police station that authorities thought was lost. Britt said authorities are currently testing that evidence.
Following the hearing, McCollum and Brown were sent back to Warren County and Central prisons where'd they have been serving their sentences. They'll conduct out-processing there before being released to their families. Morrison said he was glad the Innocence Project took the time to listen to the brothers, and that their story didn't end with their 1990s re-trials.
"I just give it to God, give Him the Glory," said Morrison. "Because I don't know how they're coming home."
He also acknowledged Buie's family. Her sister was visibly upset as she walked out of the courtroom following the judgment. They were unavailable for comment.
"I'm hurt for that family," he said. "You heard that young girl in there crying for her sister. She feels like the family has been done wrong. Thirty years they made that kid think that those two boys had killed her sister."
"We all need prayer."
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