- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The former prosecutor who originally tried two men recently freed by DNA evidence after 30 years in prison says Gov. Pat McCrory would be a “damn fool” to consider pardoning them.

“He needs to get some investigators … down here, quietly, investigating and talking to people,” former Robeson County District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt told The Associated Press. “But I don’t think he’s clever enough to do that.”

The case involves Henry McCollum, the state’s longest-serving death row inmate, and his half brother Leon Brown. They are awaiting the governor’s decision after their lawyers filed a pardon application Friday, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

McCollum and Brown were freed two weeks ago after a judge vacated their convictions in the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie because of new DNA evidence pointing to another man who lived a block away from the soybean field where her body was found. That man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.

McCollum, 50, and Brown, 46, served three decades in prison after their attorneys say heavy handed detectives coerced two scared teenagers with low IQs into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

McCollum was 19 at the time of Buie’s murder and Brown was 15. No physical evidence connects them to the crime.

The other inmate’s DNA was found on a cigarette butt recovered from the crime scene in 1983 and recently tested for DNA as part of an investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.

In an interview with the AP at his Lumberton home last week, Joe Britt said he has no doubt that McCollum and Brown are guilty, despite the new DNA evidence. He said they were freed because of “smoke and mirrors” presented in court by the Innocence Commission and the “capitulation” of current Robeson DA Johnson Britt, who agreed to the release.

Before considering a pardon, Joe Britt, who is distantly related to the current county prosecutor with the same last name, said the governor should conduct his own inquiry into the case.

“McCrory has a chance to do what the DA should’ve done, and that is a full investigation of it - talk with the investigators, talk with the prosecuting attorneys, lay out all the evidence, and compare it,” said Joe Britt, 79. “If he makes the wrong step and grants the pardon then he’s going to step in deep doo-doo.”

During a Sept. 2 hearing before Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser, Johnson Britt said the new DNA evidence negated what his predecessor presented at the original trial. He is now considering whether to reopen the case and pursue charges against the other inmate, who is now 74. The AP generally does not report the names of criminal suspects unless they are charged with a crime.

Joe Britt predicted the current prosecutor won’t charge the other man because there won’t be enough evidence to win a conviction. He argued that the new DNA match proves nothing because the other inmate could have tossed the cigarette butt down days or weeks before Buie was killed.

“If he tries to try it, he will lose,” Joe Britt said. “He’d have to put all of his hopes on the spit on a cigarette.”

Joe Britt’s current position differs from what he presented to the jury that convicted McCollum and Brown in 1984. At the trial, he said the Newport cigarette was crucial evidence because it was smoked by the killer.

In addition, DNA taken from the lip of a beer can found at the crime scene matched the young victim. Fingerprints taken from the can don’t match either McCollum or Brown.

McCrory has already said his office was prepared to review the men’s applications and that he was happy the judge overturned their convictions.

“If they apply, we will begin reviewing their applications as soon as they are received,” McCrory said in a statement issued the day after their release.

McCrory’s office did not respond to a request for any new comment Wednesday. If McCollum and Brown are pardoned, they could seek compensation under a state law that allows up to $750,000 for people wrongly convicted of felonies.

Joe Britt mocked the governor’s earlier statement.

“He said, ‘Oh I’m thrilled,’ when they released them, ‘I’m thrilled, and I look forward to the paperwork being sent to me for the pardon,’” the ex-prosecutor said. “And he’s a damn fool if that’s his attitude.”

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Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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