On September 25, 1983, Ronnie Buie reported to police in Red Springs, North Carolina, that his 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, was missing. The following day, Sabrina’s body, clad only in a bra that was pushed around the back of her neck, was found in a soybean field. She had been raped and suffocated when her panties were stuffed down her throat.
The physical evidence recovered included a cigarette butt, some beer cans, Sabrina’s bloody clothing, two bloodstained sticks and a bloodstained piece of plywood. Some of the clothing was found in the soybean field near the body. The rest of the evidence was found in another field near Hardin’s, a grocery store in Red Springs. Police believed that’s where Sabrina was raped and murdered, and then the body was dragged to the soybean field.
Red Springs police officer Larry Floyd, who took the initial missing persons report, asked Ronnie Buie to find out if anyone from out of town had been in Red Springs, a town of less than 4,000 people, and might have approached Sabrina.
Two days later, on September 27th, police questioned 19-year-old Henry McCollum
, a mentally-challenged youth from New Jersey (his IQ was later tested as low as 51), who was in town visiting his mother.
When police first interviewed McCollum, he said he saw Sabrina walking to Hardin’s store around noon on September 24th. He denied any involvement in the crime.
On the following day, a high school student told police that there was a rumor at the school that McCollum was involved because he looked weird.
As a result, McCollum was taken to the police station where, for over four hours, police fed information to McCollum until he confessed to participating in the crime. McCollum said that on September 23rd, he and four other teenaged boys took the victim to a field where they took turns raping her while the others held her down, and that afterwards her underwear was stuffed down her throat until she stopped breathing. Police said McCollum identified the other participants as his 15-year-old half-brother, Leon Brown, Darrel Suber, Chris Brown and Louis Moore, all of whom lived in Red Springs.
While McCollum was being interrogated, Leon Brown, who also was mentally challenged (his IQ tested as low as 49), came to the station, accompanied by his mother and sister. Not long after McCollum signed his confession, Leon Brown signed a confession as well, implicating himself, McCollum, Chris Brown and Darrel Suber.
On September 29, 1983, McCollum and Brown were arrested on charges of capital murder and rape. No charges were filed against the other three boys they implicated in their confessions. Two of them had alibis that were substantiated and there was no evidence connecting the third to the crime.
About three weeks later, on October 22, 1983, 18-year-old Joann Brockman was reported missing in Red Springs. That same day, her body was found; she had been raped and strangled. Witnesses recalled seeing Brockman a short while before she went missing in the company of 43-year-old Roscoe Artis, who had recently moved to Red Springs. Police arrested Artis after he confessed to the rape and murder. Artis was convicted of that crime and sentenced to death in the summer of 1984.
McCollum and Brown went on trial in Robeson County Superior Court in October 1984. The prosecution’s case rested primarily on the confessions, which were recounted to the jury by detectives. But the prosecution also called 17-year-old L.P. Sinclair, who said that prior to the crime, he was walking on the street with Brown and McCollum and they both talked about having sex with Sabrina. Sinclair also testified that after the murder, McCollum told him that he and McCollum had raped and killed Sabrina. During cross-examination, Sinclair admitted he had been interviewed three times by police before McCollum and Brown were arrested and that he never implicated either of them.
No physical or forensic evidence—including fingerprints lifted from the beer cans—linked either McCollum or Brown to the crime.
McCollum and Brown were convicted on October 25, 1984. They were both sentenced to death.
In 1988, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated their convictions and death sentences and ordered them to be retried because the trial judge failed to inform the jury that it had to consider each defendant’s guilt or innocence separately.
McCollum was reconvicted in 1991 and was again sentenced to death. Brown was retried in 1992. The jury convicted him of rape only and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Over the years, both men continued to challenge their convictions. During a re-investigation of the case, defense lawyers discovered that three days prior to their 1984 trial, police asked the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations to compare the fingerprints from the beer cans to those of Artis. There were no documents indicating whether that comparison was performed, and the request had not been disclosed to defense lawyers for McCollum and Brown.
In 2004, in response to a request from McCollum, DNA testing was ordered on the cigarette butt found near the victim’s body. A DNA profile was obtained; it did not match the DNA profiles of either Brown or McCollum.
In 2010, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began investigating the case at the request of Brown’s attorneys. The Commission requested that the DNA profile from the cigarette butt be submitted to the North Carolina state police DNA database. The DNA profile matched that of Roscoe Artis, who by that time was serving a sentence of life in prison after his death sentence had been set aside on appeal.
The defense also discovered that Artis had been convicted of assault with intent to commit rape in 1957, and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. He was released in 1967 and convicted of assaulting a woman that same year. And after completing his sentence for that crime, he assaulted a 16-year-old girl and again was convicted and sent to prison. In addition, at the time Artis moved to Red Springs in 1983, he was wanted by authorities for a 1980 rape murder in Gaston County, North Carolina. The victim in that case was found nude except for a bra and shirt, and an object was stuffed down her throat. She had been beaten with a stick.
After Artis was convicted of the Robeson County murder and sentenced to death, Gaston County authorities dismissed the case against him.
The defense also learned that before Artis’s sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1989, he repeatedly told another inmate that McCollum and Brown were innocent. The inmate told lawyers for McCollum and Brown that Artis “knew a lot about the victim. He knew some obscure facts about the crime, including the color of the victim’s underwear and how she was killed.”
The defense also learned that Sinclair had taken a polygraph examination prior to the first trial and his statements that he knew nothing about the crime were deemed truthful. That information had never been disclosed to the defense.
In August 2014, lawyers for the Center for Death Penalty Ligation Center filed a motion on behalf of McCollum and Brown requesting that their convictions be vacated and the charges dismissed. On September 2, 2014, the motion was granted, the charges were dismissed and Brown and McCollum were released. They had each served nearly 31 years in prison.
In June 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory pardoned both men. In August 2015, McCollum and Brown filed federal civil rights suits seeking damages for their wrongful incarceration. In September 2015, the state of North Carolina awarded each man $750,000.
– Maurice Possley