Two mentally impaired half-brothers have been freed after serving three decades in a US prison for the rape and murder of a child after DNA evidence proved they were not guilty.
Henry McCollum, 50, hugged his weeping parents at the gates of Central Prison in Raleigh on Wednesday, a day after a judge ordered his release, citing the new evidence in the 1983 slaying of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie.
His half-brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown, was later freed from Maury Correctional Institution near Greenville, where he 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."
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the convictions on Tuesday. He said another man's DNA being found on a cigarette butt left near the body of the slain girl contradicted the case put forth by prosecutors.
The ruling was the latest twist in a notorious case that began with what defence attorneys said were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time, and Brown was 15. There was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime.
Defence lawyers petitioned for their release after a recent analysis from the butt pointed to another man who lived near the soybean field where Buie's body was found. That man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.
'Truth has prevailed'
McCollum was North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmate and Brown was serving life for the rape.
"This case highlights in a most dramatic manner the importance of finding the truth," said Ann Kirby, Brown's lawyer.
"Today, truth has prevailed, but it comes 30 years too late for Sabrina Buie and her family, and for Leon, Henry, and their families.
"Their sadness, grief, and loss will remain with them forever."
North Carolina state law now requires murder interrogations to be recorded or videotaped, but at the time the brothers were convicted such laws were not in effect.
There were no recordings of the confessions, which contained details that authorities now acknowledge were factually impossible.