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North Carolina Brothers Settle Lawsuit Over 31 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

by Matt Clarke

On April 11, 2017, two North Carolina brothers who had been wrongfully convicted and spent 31 years in prison before being exonerated of a rape-murder by DNA evidence moved to dismiss their lawsuit against the government agencies and law enforcement officers complicit in their wrongful convictions, following an undisclosed settlement.

Half-brothers Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were 19 and 15 years old, respectively, when they were arrested for the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. They were released from prison over three decades later, in 2014, after DNA evidence from the crime scene exonerated them and identified another person, Roscoe Artis, as the murderer.

At the time McCollum and Brown were arrested, police knew that Artis had a history of multiple assaults against women, was a suspect in similar murders and lived in a house next to where Buie’s body was found. Nonetheless, based on little more than a rumor circulating at a local high school, they arrested the brothers – both of whom were intellectually disabled – and subjected them to hours of continuous interrogation without allowing them to contact their parents or an attorney. Officers also threatened them both verbally and physically when they asserted their innocence or refused to talk. Eventually, the brothers were coerced into signing confessions providing details of the crime; three other boys mentioned in the high school rumor all proved to have unbreakable alibis.

Law enforcement officials ignored the fact that fingerprints from the crime scene excluded McCollum and Brown. They failed to convey information about that discrepancy and other exculpatory evidence to the prosecutor in the case, much less the defense attorney. Based almost exclusively on the coerced confessions, the brothers were convicted and sentenced to death. At a retrial following a successful appeal, McCollum was again sentenced to death while Brown received life.

Ironically, the brothers met Artis while they were incarcerated. He was on death row for one of at least two rape-murders he was believed to have committed after the Buie murder. He befriended Brown and McCollum, who were being abused by other prisoners, and told them he knew they were innocent but never admitted to killing and raping Buie.

Both brothers filed post-conviction motions; with the help of another prisoner, Brown also contacted the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, requesting that they review his case. The Red Springs Police Department initially claimed it had no records; however, thanks to the dogged determination of commission investigator Sharon Stellato, the records were found at the department. After multiple interviews with Artis on death row, Stellato was also able to secure a DNA sample. It was used to show his DNA was present at the Buie crime scene, which led to McCollum and Brown’s exoneration and release.

Assisted by Orlando, Florida attorney Patrick Michael Megaro, the brothers filed a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging law enforcement officials had falsely arrested them, coerced false confessions, concealed exculpatory evidence, committed perjury, fabricated evidence and maliciously prosecuted them. Named as defendants were the Town of Red Springs, Robeson County, Sheriff Kenneth Sealy, North Carolina Bureau of Investigation agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead, Deputy Sheriff Joel Garth Locklear, Red Springs police officer Larry Floyd and the estate of former Red Springs Chief of Police Luther Haggins.

The district court approved the settlement agreement and granted a motion to seal the records – which included the settlement amount – in December 2017. The lawsuit had claimed that Brown “was destroyed” by his wrongful incarceration and was sexually assaulted and beaten by other prisoners, resulting in severe mental health problems that persisted after his release. See: McCollum v. Robeson County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:15-cv-00451-BO.

McCollum and Brown had previously been declared innocent and pardoned, and received $750,000 each through a separate wrongful conviction compensation process in 2015. 

Additional sources: Associated Press, The News & Observer


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Related legal case

McCollum v. Robeson County