(CNN) — A pair of siblings who served decades behind bars in the rape and murder of a North Carolina child will walk out of prison free men Wednesday after DNA evidence implicated someone else.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were just teenagers when they were arrested in 1983 and charged with the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs, about 30 miles southeast of Fayetteville in rural Robeson County.
Buie’s body was found in an area of Red Springs known as something of a “lovers’ lane,” according to Joe Freeman Britt, the district attorney who prosecuted them in the ’80s. The ground was littered with “beer cans, condoms and cigarettes,” Britt said.
It was one of those cigarette butts that ultimately set them free.
DNA found on a cigarette “matched another individual named Roscoe Artis, a convicted rapist and murderer who lived less than 100 yards from where the victim’s body was found,” said a statement from McCollum’s and Brown’s attorneys.
Artis is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison on a separate conviction. It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether prosecutors would bring charges against him for Buie’s murder.
“This is the most blessed day,” Brown kept repeating Tuesday, according to his attorney, Ann Kirby,
“It was an amazing moment for everyone,” added Vernetta Alston, an attorney for McCollum.
Only not everyone thought it was so amazing.
“This a tragic day for justice in Robeson County,” said Britt.
When asked whether Britt still believes he got the conviction right, without hesitation, he said, “absolutely.”
“These guys got three trials. Thirty-six people reviewed it and thought the confessions were correct,” Britt told CNN. “You know how hard it is to get a conviction in a capital case?”
McCollum, 50, was 19 at the time of his arrest. He was sentenced to death in 1984 and is North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate. Brown, who is four years younger than his half-brother, was initially sentenced to death as well but later had it reduced to life in prison.
Kirby and Alston said that their clients’ confessions were coerced and that both were “severely intellectually disabled.”
“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” said Ken Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
“It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”