RALEIGH, N.C. – Two North Carolina brothers were awarded $750,000 each in compensation Wednesday for the three decades they were wrongfully imprisoned in the killing of an 11-year-old girl.
Henry McCollum, 51, appeared calm as a North Carolina commission formally awarded the money to him and half brother Leon Brown, 47, during a hearing. Brown is in the hospital, suffering from health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, the brothers' lawyer said, and did not attend.
McCollum and Brown 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 killing of Sabrina Buie. McCollum had been the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina's death row. Brown had been sentenced to life in prison.
McCollum, who has been living with his sister, said he is happy the money will enable him to support himself and help his family.
"My family, they have struggled for years and years," he said. "It's hard out there for them, and I want to help them."
The governor pardoned the brothers in June, a step that made each eligible to receive $50,000 from the state for every year spent in prison, with a limit of $750,000. They can also receive educational benefits from the state.
Their attorney said the money will be put in a trust and invested so that the brothers can live off the earnings and won't have to work.
In the months since their release, both men have had trouble adjusting to the outside world after spending most of their adult lives in prison. Money has been a problem, but McCollum has said the most important part of the pardon was having his name cleared.
McCollum listed some of the things he enjoys about freedom: "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."
Sabrina's body was found in a soybean field in rural Robeson County, cigarette butts, a beer can and two bloody sticks nearby. Defense attorneys have said the brothers were scared teenagers with low IQs when they were questioned by police and coerced into confessing. McCollum was 19, Brown 15.
The DNA from the cigarettes didn't match Brown or McCollum, and fingerprints on the beer can weren't theirs either. No physical evidence connects them to the crime, a prosecutor acknowledged last year.
Both men 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 convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
The men's sister, Geraldine Brown, said that she is happy for her brothers but that the pardon and compensation are bittersweet, considering that Leon Brown is "really sick" from his time in prison. She said he suffers mental problems including PTSD as well as diabetes.
"He did not go in that way," she said. "They snatched him from my mother as a baby."
Megaro sued Robeson County, the town where the killing happened, the sheriff and others on Monday in federal court on behalf of the men. The lawsuit said the men's civil rights were violated and seeks unspecified damages.