RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Two brothers who falsely confessed under police interrogation to killing an 11-year-old girl were awarded $750,000 each in compensation for the three decades they spent behind bars — a stint that left one of them a broken man, according to his family.
Henry McCollum, 51, appeared calm as a North Carolina commission awarded the money to him and half brother Leon Brown, 47, during a hearing. Brown did not attend; he is in the hospital, suffering from 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 killing of Sabrina Buie. McCollum had been the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina’s death row. Brown had been sentenced to life in prison.
McCollum, who has been living with his sister, said he is happy 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.”
The governor pardoned the brothers in June, making each man eligible to receive $50,000 from the state for every year spent in prison, with a limit of $750,000. 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.
Sabrina’s body was found in a soybean field in rural Robeson County, cigarette butts, a beer can and two bloody sticks nearby. Defense attorneys have said the brothers were scared teenagers with low IQs when they were questioned by police and coerced into confessing. McCollum was 19, Brown 15.
The DNA from the cigarettes didn’t match either one of them, and fingerprints on the beer can weren’t theirs either. No physical evidence connected them to the crime.
Since their release, both men have had trouble adjusting to the outside world after spending most of their adult lives in prison. Money has been a problem, but McCollum has said the most important part of the pardon was having his name cleared.
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, attorney Patrick Megaro said. Megaro sued Robeson County, the town where the killing happened, the sheriff and others Monday for unspecified damages, saying the men’s civil rights were violated.
Megaro said that Brown suffers from hallucinations and deep depression and that his 1,000-page prison medical record documents his sad descent. The lawsuit said both men were bullied and attacked behind bars, and Brown was sexually assaulted repeatedly by other inmates.
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 in prison.
Both men 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 convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
The men’s sister, Geraldine Brown, said that she is happy for her brothers but that the pardon and compensation are bittersweet, considering that Leon Brown 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.”