RALEIGH, N.C. – Receiving $750,000 apiece for wrongful imprisonment is a bittersweet reward for two North Carolina brothers who suffered an emotional and physical toll from their three decades of incarceration.
Henry McCollum says he's happy to be free and the money will help him and his family. But his brother, Leon Brown, is struggling from his time behind bars.
Brown is hospitalized because of severe mental illness that his family attributes to his wrongful imprisonment in the killing of an 11-year-old girl. He was unable to attend the hearing Wednesday when the state awarded them compensation.
"I'm happy one can go on," said sister Geraldine Brown, who's been sharing her house with the men. "But I'm living a life where the other can't go on."
McCollum, 51, wore a gray suit and brought a framed copy of his pardon to hear a state official rule that each man could receive the maximum payout under state law.
After the hearing, McCollum discussed what freedom represents to him: "Being out here, to be able to breathe the air. To be able to walk around as a free man. To be able to walk down that street with my head up high."
McCollum and Brown, 47, were released last September after a judge threw out their convictions, citing new DNA evidence that points to another man in the 1983 rape and slaying of Sabrina Buie. McCollum had been the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina's death row. Brown had been sentenced to life in prison.
They were pronounced innocent in June by Gov. Pat McCrory, who issued pardons that made them eligible for the compensation.
Their attorney said the money will be put in a trust and invested so the brothers can live off the earnings and won't have to work.
North Carolina is among 30 states that have laws for compensating people who are wrongfully convicted, according to the Innocence Project. But North Carolina stands alone with its Innocence Inquiry Commission, set up to investigate disputed cases. It performed the DNA testing that set the brothers free.
Sabrina's body was found in a soybean field in rural Robeson County, with a cigarette butt, a beer can and other items nearby.
Attorneys for the two brothers say the scared teenagers with low IQs were berated and fed details by investigators before they signed confessions saying they were part of a group that killed the youngster. McCollum was 19, Brown 15.
But the DNA on the cigarette didn't match either one of them, and fingerprints on the beer can weren't theirs either. No physical evidence connected them to the crime.
The current district attorney for Robeson County, who didn't prosecute McCollum and Brown, has said he is considering charging the man whose DNA was found on the cigarette. That man is in prison for another murder.
Meanwhile, McCollum and Brown have had trouble adapting to life outside of prison. Attorney Patrick Megaro said both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Brown has been hospitalized at least six times for problems that include deep depression and hallucinations.
Both men were bullied and attacked behind bars, and Brown was sexually assaulted repeatedly by other inmates, according to a lawsuit brought by Megaro against the county, town and investigators involved in the case.
The brothers were initially given death sentences. In 1988, the state Supreme Court threw out their convictions and ordered new trials. McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was found guilty of rape and sentenced to life.
The Associated Press normally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Megaro said Brown and his family were willing to make the information public to show how he suffered.
Geraldine Brown said her brother Leon is "really sick" from his time in prison.
"He did not go in that way," she said. "They snatched him from my mother as a baby."