RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Two brothers wrongfully imprisoned for three decades in the killing of an 11-year-old girl say pardons will help them move on "with not just a clear conscience, but a clear name."
It will also help them adjust to life on the outside with hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. The governor's action Thursday qualified each of the brothers for $750,000 from the state.
Family and friends of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were jubilant in early September after a judge vacated their convictions and ordered their release, citing new DNA evidence that points to another man in the killing and raping of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983.
"It ain't about money," McCollum said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It was about just being able to see that I was innocent of a crime I was charged with. It was just a blessing to be out here, to live a normal life."
But their freedom has been difficult. Both men spent much of their adult life in prison. When McCollum walked out of death row, he needed help putting on the seatbelt in his father's car. At the time, he had never owned a cellphone and was unaccustomed to the Internet. Each man was given $45 by prison officials when they left.
"I do want to learn how to drive. Because I wasn't able to do that years ago. But now I have the opportunity to do it," Brown said.
McCollum had been the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina's death row. His half brother Brown had been serving life in prison.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced on Thursday that he planned to pardon the two men after a comprehensive process that included meetings with Brown, who's 47; and McCollum, who's 51. The governor's office sent out another statement Friday evening saying he had signed the pardons.
McCollum and Brown thanked the governor, their family and all the lawyers who have worked on their cases, but they weren't present for McCrory's announcement Thursday; they had said earlier this year that they have had a hard time since their release.
"I can't do nothing to help my family," McCollum told The News & Observer of Raleigh in January. "They're not able to pay their bills."
The newspaper reported that lawyers at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham held a fundraiser for them, and others donated money after reading about the case.
The pardon qualifies each of the brothers to receive $50,000 from the state for every year they were imprisoned, with a limit of $750,000. The compensation still needs to be approved by a state agency, but it is considered a formality. It's not clear exactly when they could get the money.
In September 1983, Buie was found in a soybean field in rural Robeson County, naked except for a bra pushed up against her neck. A short distance away, police found two bloody sticks and cigarette butts.
Defense attorneys have said the brothers were scared teenagers who had low IQs when they were questioned by police and coerced into confessing. McCollum was then 19, and Brown was 15.
The DNA from the cigarette butts doesn't match Brown or McCollum, and fingerprints taken from a beer can at the scene weren't theirs either. No physical evidence connects them to the crime, a judge and prosecutor acknowledged last fall.
Based largely on their confessions, both were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. Upon retrial, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
Current Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who didn't prosecute the men, has said he's considering whether to reopen the case and charge the other man, whose DNA was found on a cigarette butt from the crime scene. The cigarette butt was tested as part of the recent investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a one-of-its-kind investigative panel.
The inmate whose DNA was on the cigarette is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month after Sabrina's killing.
Ken Rose, a lawyer who represented McCollum for 20 years, said he's thrilled by the pardon but frustrated it took so many years to prove their innocence.
"We're very happy that the governor reached this decision, but not at all surprised," Rose said. "None of us have any doubt that they are innocent. And finally the state has acknowledged actual innocence."