Two brothers who spent more than 30 years in prison for a murder they didn't commit were released Wednesday, a day after a judge overturned their convictions.
Henry McCollum, now 50, and one of North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmates, left the Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday morning and embraced his parents.
FOR THE RECORD
12:21 p.m.: The headline in a previous version of this post suggested that Henry McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, were both released from death row. Brown was initially convicted and sentenced to death, but was later re-convicted and sentenced to life in prison instead.
"I just thank God that I'm out of this place," McCollum told reporters gathered outside. "I knew one day that I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn't know when that time was going to be."
McCollum was 19 years old in 1983, when he and his half-brother, Leon Brown, were arrested for the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina. Brown was just 15. They were later convicted of murder and rape, and sentenced to death.
Brown, now 46, was released Wednesday afternoon from Maury Correctional Institution outside Greenville, N.C., Associated Press reported.
McCollum's parents were emotional at his release.
"We have not touched our son Henry in over 30 years," said Priscilla McCollum, McCollum's stepmother, who recalled putting her hands to the glass that separated them when they visited. "We are so grateful that it's over."
So many years had passed since McCollum had seen the outside world that he needed some help from a TV cameraman to get his seatbelt on.
Looking gaunt and dressed in a brown suit and crisp, white shirt and tie, McCollum said he was happy to be free, and felt no bitterness.
"They took 30 years away from me for no reason, but I don't hate them. I don't hate them one bit," he told reporters.
McCollum and his brother have long maintained they were innocent in the brutal rape and murder of the young girl, who was found in a field surrounded by beer cans and cigarette butts.
DNA evidence later exonerated both men, linking the crime to a man named Roscoe Artis, who was already serving time in a North Carolina prison.
On Tuesday, a judge overturned their convictions, citing the fact that no physical evidence linked Brown or McCollum to the crime, and the fact that the case relied on their confessions, which McCollum has said were coerced after hours of interrogation.
"I just made up a story and gave it to them. My mind was focused on getting out of that police station," McCollum told the News & Observer last week as he sat on death row.
In a statement, attorneys for the half-brothers said the judge's order righted wrongs committed many decades ago against Brown and McCollum, who the lawyers say are disabled and have the intellectual ability of children.
"It's terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years," Ken Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said in a statement.
"Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution," said Rose, who has represented McCollum for 20 years. "It's impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost."
For now, McCollum says he is looking forward to going home and taking a hot bath. "I want to see how that tub feels," he said. "I want to go to sleep and wake up the next day and see all this is real."