NORTH CAROLINA - Two North Carolina men who each served 30 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl have been released from prison Wednesday after a judge overturned their convictions.
The above video shows 46-year-old Leon Brown reuniting with his family after being released from the Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County early Wednesday afternoon.
"God is good all the time, all the time. I fought this battle with the help of God. I'm here today," said Brown as he was being embraced by family.
Earlier Wednesday, Brown's half brother, 50-year-old Henry McCollum, was released from Central Prison in Raleigh. McCollum had been one of North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmates after spending three decades behind bars. He hugged his mother after he got out.
"I just thank God that I'm out of this place, lot of joy and rejoicing, happiness and everything cause I was very anxious when they told me this news and stuff. I wanted to get away from this place," said McCollum.
McCollum spoke briefly to reporters before getting into the passenger seat of his father's car, where a reporter had to show him how to buckle the seat belt. He had never used a seat belt of that design.
McCollum and Brown were ordered to be released on Tuesday by Superior Court Judge Douglass Sasser. The half brothers were convicted in the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Robeson County.
Buie was found dead in a rural soybean field, naked except for a bra pushed up against her neck. A short distance away, police found two bloody sticks and a cigarette butt.
Authorities said McCollum, who was 19 at the time, and Brown, who was 15, confessed to killing Buie. But attorneys said both men have mental health issues and their confessions were coerced after hours of questioning.
Brown's cousin, Ted Morrison, said he wants answers.
"Who forced these kids to sign confessions so that they could go home and then knew they was [sic] locking him up?," Morrison said. "Knowing they weren't mentally prepared for what they were being interrogated about."
Both McCollum and Brown were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
They both served 30 years in prison before their release Wednesday.
Lawyers for McCollum and Brown said there is no physical evidence connecting them to the crime. The lawyers petitioned for the men's release after DNA evidence from the cigarette butt recovered at the crime scene pointed to another man, who lived near the soybean field where Buie's body was found.
That man is serving a life sentence for a similar rape and slaying that happened less than a month after Buie was killed.
Sharon Stellato, the associate director North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, testified that the commission interviewed the 74-year-old inmate now suspected of killing Buie three times this summer, but he gave inconsistent statements. The Associated Press does not generally disclose the names of criminal suspects unless they are charged.
According to Stellato, the inmate said at first he didn't know Buie. But in later interviews, the man said the girl would come to his house and buy cigarettes for him, Stellato said.
The man also told them he saw the girl the night she went missing and gave her a coat and hat because it was raining, Stellato said. He told the commission that's why his DNA may have been at the scene.
Stellato also said the man repeatedly told her McCollum and Brown are innocent.
Still, he denied involvement in the killing, Stellato said. He told the commission that the girl was alive when she left his house and that he didn't see her again. He told the commission that he didn't leave the house because it was raining and he had to work the next day.
Stellato said weather records show it didn't rain the night Buie went missing or the next day.
The man now suspected in Buie's killing was convicted of assaulting three other women over 30 years before his last conviction..