Wrongly convicted brothers each get $750,000 in compensation
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — When two brothers were released after three decades of wrongful imprisonment, they struggled to adapt to an outside world neither had experienced since they were teenagers. The older one has managed to adjust and keep his “head up high,” but the younger one, according to his family, is a broken man.
On Wednesday, the state of North Carolina sought to make amends, awarding each man $750,000 for the time they spent behind bars after they falsely confessed to taking part in the killing of an 11-year-old girl.
Henry McCollum, 51, appeared calm as a state official approved the maximum payout under the law to him and half-brother Leon Brown, 47. Brown did not attend the hearing; he is in the hospital, suffering from mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, the brothers’ lawyer said.
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 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 compensation.
McCollum, who has been living with his sister in the Fayetteville area, said 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.”
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.
North Carolina is among 30 states that have laws for compensating people 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 cigarette butts, a beer can and two bloody sticks nearby.
Attorneys for the two brothers say that they were scared teenagers with low IQs and that investigators berated them and fed them details about the crime 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 cigarettes didn’t match either one of them, and the 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 on the cigarettes. That man is in prison for another murder.
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.”
Meanwhile, Brown has been hospitalized at least six times in the last year for mental health problems that include hallucinations and deep depression, attorney Patrick Megaro said.
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 county authorities and others.
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.
The men’s sister, 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.”
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