North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate and his younger brother walked out as free men on Wednesday after serving 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
Henry McCollum, 50, along with 46-year-old Leon Brown were freed from Maury Correctional Institution after DNA evidence showed an 11-year-old girl may have been raped and killed by another man. The brothers had been serving a life sentence.
“I knew one day I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn’t know when that time was going to be,” McCollum said. “I just thank God that I am out of this place. There’s not anger in my heart. I forgive those people and stuff. But I don’t like what they done to me and my brother because they took 30 years away from me for no reason. But I don’t hate them. I don’t hate them one bit.”
Brown declined to be interviewed following his release, saying through his attorney he was too overwhelmed. He hugged his sister outside the prison before asking to go for a cheeseburger and milkshake.
“We were just looking at each other and just smiling,” said Ann Kirby, one of Brown’s lawyers. “We may have been smiling too hard to say anything.”
During his long years on death row, McCollum watched 42 men he describes as brothers make their last walk to the nearby death chamber to receive lethal injections. If not for a series of lawsuits that has blocked any executions in North Carolina since 2006, McCollum would have likely been put to death years ago.
The convictions were overturned by Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser Tuesday. He said another man’s DNA that was found on a cigarette butt near the slain girl’s body contradicted the prosecutors’ case.
Defense attorneys argued the men had been coerced into confessions. McCollum was 19 at the time and Brown was 15. No physical evidence connected the men to the crime.
The man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.
Upon his release, McCollum expressed his belief that there are still other innocent men on the inside. He is at least the seventh death row inmate freed in North Carolina since 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
May these men have peace as they enter their next phase of life.
How can we free innocent men locked up sooner?
Should some sort of review system be put in place?
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