Wrongly-convicted man freed after 31 years on death row in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. - One of North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmates was freed from prison Wednesday, a day after a judge overturned his conviction because of new DNA evidence in the case.

Henry McCollum, 50, walked out of Central Prison in Raleigh, hugged his mother and father and thanked God for his release.

His half brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown, also had his conviction in a 1983 rape and murder overturned on Tuesday. Brown was expected to be freed later Wednesday.

McCollum spoke briefly to reporters before getting into the passenger seat of his father's car, where a reporter had to show him how to buckle the seat belt. He had never used a seat belt of that design.

McCollum said he hoped to go home and take a bath. There will be changes to which he'll need to adjust - particularly the Internet and cellphones, he said.

Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the convictions Tuesday, saying the fact another man's DNA was found on a cigarette butt left near the body of the slain girl contradicted the case put forth by prosecutors.

The ruling was the latest twist in a notorious legal case that began with what defense attorneys said were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time, and Brown was 15.

Defense lawyers petitioned for their release after a recent analysis from the butt pointed to another man who lived near the soybean field where Sabrina Buie's body was found in Robeson County. That man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.

The men's freedom hinged largely on the local prosecutor's acknowledgement of the strong evidence of their innocence.

"The evidence you heard today in my opinion negates the evidence presented at trial," Johnson Britt, the Robeson County district attorney, said during a closing statement before the judge announced his decision. Britt did not prosecute the men.

Even if the men were granted a new trial, Britt said: "Based upon this new evidence, the state does not have a case to prosecute."

Minutes later, Sasser made his ruling.

The day-long evidence hearing included testimony from Sharon Stellato. The associate director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission discussed three interviews she had over the summer with the 74-year-old inmate whose DNA matched that found on the cigarette butt. He was convicted of assaulting three other women and is now suspected of killing Buie. 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, he said the girl would come to his house and buy cigarettes for him.

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 said weather records show it didn't rain the night Buie went missing or the next day.

Stellato also said the man repeatedly told her McCollum and Brown are innocent.

Still, he denied involvement in the killing, Stellato said. He said the girl was alive when she left his house and that he didn't see her again. Buie was found 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 cigarette butts.

The DNA from the cigarette butts doesn't match Brown or McCollum, and fingerprints taken from a beer can at the scene aren't theirs either, attorneys say. No physical evidence connects them to the crime.

Both were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.

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