RALEIGH, N.C. » Two brothers will receive more than $1 million from the state of North Carolina after they were wrongfully imprisoned for the killing of an 11-year-old girl, but for one of them, the windfall isn’t the issue.
“It ain’t about money,” said Henry McCollum, 51, who, along with his 47-year-old brother Leon Brown, was pardoned by Gov. Pat McCrory. “It was about just being able to see that I was innocent of a crime I was charged with. It was just a blessing to be out here, to live a normal life.”
The pardon qualifies each of the brothers for $50,000 from the state for every year they were imprisoned, with a limit of $750,000 each. The compensation still needs to be approved by a state agency, but it is considered a formality. It’s not clear exactly when they could get the money.
McCrory’s office announced Friday that he had signed the pardons.
Defense attorneys have said the brothers were scared teenagers who had low IQs when they were questioned by police and coerced into confessing. McCollum was then 19, and Brown was 15.
The DNA from the cigarette butts doesn’t match Brown or McCollum, and fingerprints taken from a beer can at the scene weren’t theirs either. No physical evidence connects them to the crime, a judge and prosecutor acknowledged last fall.
Based largely on their confessions, both were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. Upon retrial, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
The path to freedom began in early September after a judge vacated their convictions and ordered their release, citing new DNA evidence that points to another man killing and raping 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983. The inmate whose DNA was on the cigarette is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and slaying that happened less than a month after Sabrina’s killing.
Current Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who didn’t prosecute the men, has said he’s considering whether to reopen the case and charge the other man. The cigarette butt was tested as part of the recent investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a one-of-its-kind investigative panel.
The brothers are still trying to come to terms with the changes that occurred in the outside world while they were behind bars. When McCollum walked off of death row, he needed help putting on the seatbelt in his father’s car. At the time, he had never owned a cellphone and was unaccustomed to the Internet. Each man was given $45 by prison officials when they left.
Brown learned the governor had pardoned him and his brother on Thursday night as he watched the news at his sister’s home in Fayetteville.
“I was upstairs in my room, because I wanted to be by myself when I hear,” he said. “Well, when he said it, right, tears start coming from my eyes. Tears of joy. And my sister, she ran upstairs. When she had hugged me, right, I had laid my head on her shoulder, crying. I couldn’t stop crying, you know? It felt — it felt good.”
And now that he’s free, Brown suggests that he’s ready to get about.
“I do want to learn how to drive,” he said. “Because I wasn’t able to do that years ago. But now I have the opportunity to do it.”
Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Skip Foreman in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.