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Wrongfully Imprisoned North Carolina Men Receive Payout


Today, two men who had spent 30 years in prison for a murder they did not commit were awarded $750,000 each by the state of North Carolina. They were released last year after a judge declared their innocence. But today's decision doesn't end legal problems against the state. We're joined now by reporter Jeff Tiberii of member station WUNC. And Jeff, first, can you just give us the background of the original case that led to the wrongful conviction of these brothers?

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: Yeah. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were teenagers at the time in 1983 when a - really, a terrible crime took place. Eleven-year-old Sabrina Buie was gang raped and murdered in a rural part of the state. These two men were quickly apprehended and prosecuted. A jury convicted them in 1984. They got new trials again in 1990 and were again convicted. And one of the two men - McCollum - spent all 30 years, 11 months and seven days on death row while Brown got a life term.

MARTIN: OK. So what finally changed? How did they end up getting released?

TIBERII: So it's been, more or less, a five-year process. The case was referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. That's essentially an independent agency that has the power to declare innocence or overturn a sentence. And they did just that after several years of looking into the facts of this case and the process of how it moved forward. The commission said that these two men were exonerated based largely on DNA evidence that pointed to another man, someone who was a sexual predator, serving a lengthy sentence. And that person had committed a similar crime before, so the district attorney and a local judge overturned the convictions and the sentences. They declared them innocent a year ago tomorrow, actually. And in this past June, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory pardoned both men, and that opened the door for this compensation.

MARTIN: So today, these two men - Henry McCollum and Leon Brown - found out that they've been awarded this money - three quarters of a million dollars each - as compensation from the state for their wrongful imprisonment. How did they react?

TIBERII: Well, we heard from one. And we heard from Mr. McCollum, and one of the words that came up time and time again was bittersweet. Here's what he shared with me earlier this afternoon.

HENRY MCCOLLUM: Those 31 years that I lost from my life, I can't really get it back - money or nothing could get it back.

TIBERII: Now, he told me he wants to make the most of his remaining days. He's 51, and he said that he wants to learn to drive a car and, at some point, go to Florida to visit Disney World. His half-brother, Leon Brown, was not there today. He's had a pretty tough go of it since their release a year ago. He's been in and out of the hospital for mental treatment. I spoke with his sister, Geraldine Brown, and she said ultimately that she's torn about today's events.

GERALDINE BROWN: This hearts. This really hurts me. I'm not happy right now, you know? I'm happy for one. And in the other side of me, I'm destroyed. I'm destroyed.

TIBERII: So she blames his, what she says, deteriorating mental health condition on what happened in prison. He went from being incarcerated, where he had medical care and prescription drugs, to being released, and those benefits immediately went away.

MARTIN: We mentioned at the beginning that there are more legal problems ahead for those involved in prosecuting the case. What might happen?

TIBERII: A federated lawsuit has been filed against the county where these two men were arrested and tried. The attorney claims it's a civil rights violation, and the legal proceedings are going to move forward in, you know, the months and, perhaps, years to come.

MARTIN: Jeff Tiberii is a reporter at member station WUNC. He joined us from their Raleigh, N.C., bureau. Jeff, thanks so much.

TIBERII: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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