African American in Prison

Source: Doug Berry / Getty

Two North Carolina brothers received a bittersweet reward of $750,000 a piece for wrongful imprisonment after suffering an emotional and physical toll from their three decades of incarceration.  Henry McCollum says he’s grateful to be free and the money will help him and his family however his brother, Leon Brown, is struggling from his time behind bars.

Brown is currently hospitalized due to severe mental illness that his family believes is a result of his wrongful imprisonment in the killing of an 11-year-old girl. Brown was unable to attend the hearing Wednesday when the state awarded them compensation.

McCollum and Brown, who are now both 47 years old, were released last September after a judge threw out their convictions, citing new DNA evidence that proves another man was guilty in the 1983 rape and murder of Sabrina Buie. McCollum had been the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina’s death row and Brown was previously sentenced to life in prison.

Gov. Pat McCrory pronounced both men innocent in June, who issued pardons that made them eligible for the compensation.  According to their attorney the money will be put in a trust and invested so the brothers can live off the earnings and won’t have to work.

Attorneys for the two brothers McCollum who was 19 at the time and Brown who was 15 years old said they were berated as well as fed details by investigators before they signed confessions saying they were among the group that killed the young girl.

However the DNA on the cigarette didn’t match neither one of them, nor the fingerprints found on the beer can, and there was no physical evidence connected them to the crime.  Even though the current district attorney for Robeson County didn’t prosecute McCollum and Brown, he has said he is considering charging the man whose DNA was actually on the cigarette.

That man is in prison for another murder.  According to attorney Patrick Megaro both brothers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and Brown has been hospitalized at least six times for problems including deep depression and hallucinations.

Both brothers were initially given death sentences but in 1988, the state Supreme Court threw out their convictions and ordered new trials. However, as a result McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was found guilty of rape and sentenced to life.

Now as a free man, 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.”


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