LUMBERTON — Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt is prepared to turn over to a judge the fate of two men who have been in prison for 30 years in connection with the rape and murder of an 11-year old, saying new DNA evidence is favorable to their case.
Britt today filed his response to motions for relief brought by attorneys representing 50-year-old Henry McCollum and his half-brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown. McCollum is currently on death row for the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie. Brown was originally charged with both crimes, but in a retrial, the murder charge was dropped. He is now serving a life sentence.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser, who is from Columbus County, is charged with the task of determining during an evidentiary hearing in Robeson County Superior Court whether the men will be given new trials or released from prison. Britt said the hearing, which begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday, could take days.
The hearing will center on DNA from a cigarette butt found at the scene of Buie’s murder that matches the DNA of Roscoe Artis, a 74-year-old man serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Joann Brockman in Red Springs. She was killed about a month after Buie wad murdered.
Attorneys have said the two crimes share “nearly identical factual circumstances” and, according to a motion filed Thursday by attorney James Payne, were investigated by the same Robeson County sheriff’s detective, Garth Locklear, who questioned Brown.
Britt said Thursday night that a new trial is an option. Some evidence is still being tested and items examined Thursday were not linked to Artis. If Sasser grants the men new trials, Britt will decide if the evidence is sufficient to prosecute.
“The picture keeps getting murkier and murkier,” Britt said, “but the one thing that has been consistent with the testing that has been done is that the defendants DNA profiles are not consistent with the evidence.”
Among items being examined are fingerprints found where Buie’s body was discovered on Sept. 26, 1983, a few blocks from her home. Of nine prints found, two were sufficient for an identification. One was Buie’s.
“There remains one unidentified latent print that has characteristics sufficient for identification that does not come back to any of the defendants and does not come back to any of their alleged accomplices,” Britt said. The print has not yet been compared with Artis’, who lived adjacent to the soybean field where Buie’s body was found.
Sasser will have to decide whether the newly found evidence is strong enough to outweigh confessions McCollum and Browna allegedly gave in 1983. Their attorneys say that those statements were coerced.
Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, who as a deputy helped SBI agents Kenneth Snead and Leroy Allen question McCollum, said McCollum “was not forced to say anything.”
“I got into it a day or so later … I never went to the crime scene, except when they showed me where it was. I didn’t know what happened until we got to that interview,” Sealey said Wednesday.
The question of whether evidence favorable to Brown and McCollum was suppressed by the prosecution will likely be decided later. If evidence was suppressed, it will be considered a Brady violation, which is a constitutional violation.
“It’s been so long, but I can guarantee there was no Brady violation,” said Joe Freeman Britt, who prosecuted the men.
Attorneys representing McCollum and Brown, including Vernetta Alston and Kenneth Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, say fingerprints found near Buie’s body were never compared to Artis’ as well as a witness in the 1984 trials named L.P. Sinclair. The Red Springs Police Department requested that the SBI run the comparison about 20 days before the men were convicted, but there is no documentation that the request was met or made known to investigators or prosecutors.
Joe Freeman Britt said he did not recall such a request. Alston and Rose have declined to comment until after the hearing.
“To me the crux of it isn’t that Roscoe Artis is potentially a suspect, the crux of it is that someone in the Red Springs Police Department thought L.P. Sinclair was,” Johnson Britt said . “… That was not disclosed and then he testified.”
When McCollum and Brown were retried in 1991 and 1992 respectively, the fingerprints were still not brought up. Additionally, a box of evidence used in the original trial was found this month at the Red Springs Police Department despite multiple requests to turn over all related materials.
Joe Freeman Britt said he was surprised to learn of the new discoveries.
”First, we didn’t have DNA (testing) back in those days and, secondly, today I’m very suspicious of DNA claims of innocence,” he said.
Sarah Willets works for Civitas Media as a reporter for The Robesonian. Reach her at 910-272-6127.