On September 26, 1983, with her underwear shoved down her throat using a stick, the body of Sabrina Buie was found. She had been brutally beaten and raped; her body left bare in a field with only her bra that had been pushed up around her neck. Sabrina Buie was 11-years old when her life was taken in such a gruesome manner.
19-year-old Henry McCollum was identified as a potential suspect. After being interrogated for several hours by law enforcement, Henry McCollum confessed to Sabrina’s murder. His confession provided great detail and not only implicated him, but implicated, three other boys, one of which was his 15-year-old brother, Leon Brown. Leon Brown also eventually confessed to the murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie while in police custody.
In grade school, Henry McCollum was placed in a school for the “educably mentally retarded” due to his intellectual disabilities. When he turned 16, a school psychologist recommended Henry be placed in a group home. After failing several grades, Henry eventually dropped out of school. Leon Brown, Henry’s brother, was illiterate and “profoundly disabled”.
Ethel Fumage was the high school student that triggered the investigative focus on Henry McCollum, based upon a rumor she heard. Five days after Henry and Leon were charged with rape and murder, Ethel told the police that she knew nothing about Sabrina’s death and she identified Henry because she thought he looked funny. This evidence was never turned over to the attorneys for Henry and Leon.
Three weeks after Sabrina’s murder, 18-year-old Joann Brockman’s nude body was left in a field. Joann Brockman, like Sabrine Buie, had been beaten, raped, and asphyxiated. When Joann Brockman’s killer, Roscoe Artis, was picked up by police, he had her blood on his shirt.
The similarities in the murder of Sabrina Buie and Joann Brockman did not go unnoticed by law enforcement. They sent a request to the State Bureau of Investigation, asking the lab to test whether an unidentified fingerprint left on a beer can found near Sabrina Buie’s body belonged to Roscoe Artis. The District Attorney did not bother to wait for the results. Instead, he moved forward full throttle with Leon and Henry’s trial, got a conviction, and placed Leon and Henry on death row. The fingerprint request was canceled.
In 2014, thirty years later, thanks to DNA, the fingerprint found on the beer can near Sabrina Buie’s body was identified as that of Roscoe Artis. Following an evidentiary hearing where the current district attorney told the judge he no longer had any credible evidence against Henry or Leon, the judge declared Henry and Leon innocent.
Thirty years of Henry McCollum’s life that could never be recovered. Thirty years of Leon Brown’s life that could never be recovered. Thirty years of heartbreak for the family of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. This case is a tragic and glaring example of a flawed criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it is not the only example.
I am 49 years old today. Thirty years ago, I would have been 19 years old, the same age as Henry McCollum when he lost his freedom as a result of our imperfect criminal justice system. I cannot imagine what it felt like to sit on death row for thirty years wondering if today was the day the State was going to kill me, an innocent person.
My youngest daughter is 11 years old, the same age as precious Sabrina Buie when she was raped and murdered. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and grief Sabrina’s mother experienced. I cannot imagine what I would feel like to have that wound cut wide open again thirty years later.
As I think about this case, all I can think is what a travesty for all of the families involved. I think about how the criminal justice system failed 11-year-old Sabrina Buie and her family. I think about how the criminal justice system failed Henry McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown. I also can’t help but wonder how the State could have made it right if Henry McCollum had been executed before the truth came to light. What could the State have possibly said to Henry McCollum’s family upon learning that they killed the wrong man? Would the State have been held accountable for its wrongful termination of Henry McCollum’s life?
The State’s ability to take a person’s life via the Death Penalty is a power like no other. Should the State be able to wield such power when it has been proven time, and time again, our criminal justice system is not equipped to guarantee that the life being taken is the life of someone who is in fact guilty of a crime? Where is the justice in that? I just don’t see it. Do you?
Food for Thought.
***Henry McCollum’s was tried and convicted in Robeson County, North Carolina. For more information on this case check out: