In September 2014, due to DNA evidence, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser threw out the convictions of death-row inmate Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and his brother Leon Brown, 46, who had been serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Sabrina’s death occurred on September 24, 1983, in Red Springs, NC which is a small town in Robeson County.
McCollum and Brown, both African-American and intellectually disabled, initially signed statements saying they were responsible for Buie’s death because they were under the impression that they would be allowed to go home if they confessed. Both men spent 30 years in prison with McCollum being the longest-serving inmate on death row in North Carolina.
Former NC State Senator John Snow, a retired judge, in 2009 helped pass a new state law, The Racial Justice Act, which enabled judges to reconsider a death sentence if a convict could prove that the jury’s verdict had been tainted by racism. The law was an attempt to address the overwhelming racial disparity in capital sentences.
On September 2, 2015, just one year after their wrongful murder convictions were overturned, a state commission awarded $750,000 to each as compensation to these gentlemen who spent just over three decades in prison. This past June, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory granted pardons to these gentlemen which allowed the brothers to receive up to $750,000 in compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment.
According to the NY Times, Patrick Megaro, the recently hired lawyer for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 51, and Leon Brown, 47, announced the settlement. He also filed a federal lawsuit against government and law enforcement officials of Robeson County, N.C., for obtaining their convictions through “fraud, perjury, coercion, the willful failure or refusal to investigate exculpatory evidence.” Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey is also named in this suit. Sealey was a detective with the Red Springs police department during the time of their interrogation and arrest.
Also according to the NY Times, the suit alleges that the men suffered great harm in prison, with Mr. Brown “repeatedly the victim of sexual assault from other inmates.” It has also been reported that Mr. Brown’s mental health had deteriorated particularly gravely since leaving prison due to the trauma that he experienced during his incarceration.
Both entered prison with intellectual disabilities and came out over 30 years later suffering more than likely from major depression, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder. (PTSD)
Minus the efforts of former North Carolina State Senator, John Snow pushing for the passage of The Racial Justice Act, Henry Lee McCollum would've more than likely been put to death by lethal injection before his day of redemption.
Although former NC State Senator Snow suffered politically for his efforts, I'm more than certain that he looks back at it all and smiles knowing that doing the right thing saved a life.
Related articles: Politics and a Former Death Row Inmate: Henry Lee McCollum