LUMBERTON, N.C. – A North Carolina judge has overturned the convictions of two men who have served 30 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl after another man's DNA was recently discovered on evidence in the case.
Superior Court Judge Douglass Sasser ordered the immediate release Tuesday of 50-year-old Henry McCollum and 46-year-old Leon Brown. The half brothers were convicted in the 1983 slaying of Sabrina Buie in Robeson County.
Lawyers for the men petitioned for their release after DNA evidence from a cigarette butt recovered at the crime scene pointed to another man.
That man is serving a life sentence for a similar rape and slaying that happened less than a month after Buie was killed.
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A man convicted of murder gave inconsistent statements about why his DNA would have been found at the scene of a notorious 1983 slaying of an 11-year-old girl for which two other men were sent to prison, according to testimony at a court hearing on Tuesday.
Sharon Stellato, the associate director North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, testified at an evidence hearing for the two half brothers, who have spent three decades in prison for the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie in Robeson County.
Lawyers for Henry McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, are asking a judge to free the men. They say new DNA evidence points to another man who is serving a life sentence for a similar rape and slaying that happened less than a month later. DNA from that man, who lived near the soybean field where Buie's body was found, was recently recovered from a cigarette butt found at the crime scene.
Stellato testified that the commission interviewed the 74-year-old inmate three times this summer and that he gave inconsistent statements. The Associated Press does not generally disclose the names of criminal suspects unless they are charged.
According to Stellato, the inmate said at first he didn't know Buie. But in later interviews, the man said the girl would come to his house and buy cigarettes for him, Stellato said.
The man also told them he saw the girl the night she went missing and gave her a coat and hat because it was raining, Stellato said. He told the commission that's why his DNA may have been at the scene.
Stellato also said the man repeatedly told her McCollum and Brown are innocent.
Still, he denied involvement in the killing, Stellato said. He told the commission that the girl was alive when she left his house and that he didn't see her again. He told the commission that he didn't leave the house because it was raining and he had to work the next day.
Stellato said weather records show it didn't rain the night Buie went missing or the next day.
Family members of McCollum and Brown cried when the men entered the packed court room Tuesday in the hopes that their long imprisonment may soon come to an end.
Robeson County 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 if their convictions are overturned.
Buie was found dead in a rural 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 Brown, who was 15, confessed to killing Buie. Both were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row, where he remains, while Brown was 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 and their confessions were coerced after hours of questioning.
The other man now suspected in Buie's killing was convicted of assaulting three other women over 30 years before his last conviction.
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.
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