By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH N.C. (Reuters) - Two North Carolina men were declared innocent and ordered freed on Tuesday after spending more than 30 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl that recent DNA tests linked to another man.
Henry McCollum, 50, and his half brother Leon Brown, 46, were teenagers when they were arrested for the 1983 rape and killing of Sabrina Buie, whose body was left in a field in the small town of Red Springs.
McCollum is North Carolina's longest-serving death row inmate. Brown's sentence was reduced at a second trial to life in prison for rape.
At a court hearing, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser ordered both brothers to be freed. Local prosecutors did not contest their release.
"This is a tragedy," said Ken Rose, an attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation representing McCollum. "He's thankful to God that this day has come."
Brown and McCollum, 15 and 19 at the time, each signed a detailed confession to the crime written by police. They later claimed they had been coerced to do so with promises of release during intense interrogations.
Court records show both men are intellectually disabled with limited abilities to read or write.
None of the DNA collected at the scene was linked to Brown or McCollum.
Among the evidence presented in court on Tuesday was a DNA match linking a cigarette butt found near the victim's body to another man, Roscoe Artis, who was later sentenced to death for a similar rape and murder in the same town.
Now 74, Artis was living with this sister at the time of the murder in a home adjacent to the field where Buie was found.
He had a long history of assaulting women and was convicted of raping and murdering an 18-year-old girl a month later. He is serving a life sentence.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency, started investigating the case in 2010.
In an interview with the News & Observer in Raleigh while he was in prison, McCollum said he never gave up hope.
"Me and my brother lost 30 years for no reason at all," he said. "I have never stopped believing that one day I would be able to walk out of that door."
(Reporting by Marti Maguire; Editing by Letitia Stein and Eric Beech)