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This One-Of-A-Kind NC Commission Secured Exoneration Of Convicted Murderers

September 2, 2014, Leon Brown on exoneration day.
Jenny Warburg
Death Penalty Information Center

In 1984 Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were both charged with the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, Sabrina Buoy. 

McCollum was 19 years old at the time. Brown was 15. Prosecutors said that the two took Buoy into a soy bean field to rape her.

The half-brothers have intellectual disabilities. Both signed written confessions that they later recanted. Both were convicted.

Their story would have ended there, except for a state agency called the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission is the first of its kind in the country, and its investigation of the McCollum and Brown convictions led to release of both men earlier this month. 

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn is the Executive Director of the commission. Sharon Stalleto is chief investigator.

When the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began to look into the McCollum/Brown case, they had to find the original evidence packet. It wasn't easy.

"In this case for example, the police department was under a court order to provide any evidence that they had in the case, and they stated that they had no physical evidence," says Stalleto. "[But] the evidence was in their evidence room."

If well-meaning volunteers were working the case, it would have stopped there. They don't have the power to go into a police station and look through the files. But because the commission is a state agency, they do have such power.

Henry McCollum was exonerated Sept. 2014.
Credit Jenny Warburg / Death Penalty Information Center
Death Penalty Information Center
Henry McCollum was exonerated Sept. 2014.

"We are given the authority of the government," says Montgomery-Blinn. "We can request to enter upon lands and search for evidence ... In 17 [past] cases we located evidence that was believed to be missing or destroyed."

Sharon Stalleto was able to find a packet at the police station which contained evidence  from the original crime scene including beer cans and the victim's fingernail scrapings. She says that evidence packets aren't stored properly for a number of reasons.

"So a lot of times maybe a detective was collecting something, putting it somewhere, [then] it got stored, was mislabeled ... and then I come requesting something, and they just don't go look," she says. "What we've learned ... is that if there's a break in the chain of custody, and there's no record of destruction, it may be there."

In the McCollum/Brown case, the evidence packet included a cigarette butt. DNA testing pointed to a man named Roscoe Artis who is currently serving prison time for another rape and murder that happened in the same town at around the same time.

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn hopes that her agency's success will have far reaching implications.

"I hope that one of the outcomes of  this case is that some of the other states see the importance of creating a commission like this."

Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
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