RALEIGH, N.C. — After walking out of prison for the first time in three decades, former death row inmate Henry McCollum tried to climb into his father's car but put his head through the loop of the seatbelt that is supposed to cross his chest. A TV cameraman showed him how it works.
The safety gear isn't all that's changed since the 50-year-old McCollum and his younger half brother were sent away for a 1983 rape and killing that new DNA evidence shows they likely did not commit.
McCollum has never accessed the Internet or owned a cellphone. And he looked ill at ease Wednesday in a tie and white dress shirt, the collar at least an inch too large, shedding the red jumpsuit he wore in his cell. His relief was obvious, though.
"Right now I want to go home and take a hot bath," McCollum said. "I want to see how that tub feel. And eat. I want to eat. I want to go to sleep and wake up the next day and see all this is real."
McCollum hugged his weeping parents at the gates of Central Prison in Raleigh, a day after a judge ordered his release, citing new DNA evidence in the 1983 slaying of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. His half brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown, was later freed from Maury Correctional Institution near Greenville, where he had been serving a life sentence.
"I knew one day I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn't know when that time was going to be," McCollum said. "I just thank God that I am out of this place"
Brown declined to be interviewed following his release, saying through his attorney he was too overwhelmed. He hugged his sister outside the prison before asking to go for a cheeseburger and milkshake.
"We were just looking at each other and just smiling," said Ann Kirby, one of Brown's lawyers. "We may have been smiling too hard to say anything."
During his long years on death row, McCollum watched 42 men he describes as brothers make their last walk to the nearby death chamber to receive lethal injections. If not for a series of lawsuits that has blocked any executions in North Carolina since 2006, McCollum would have likely been put to death years ago.
He often lay awake at night in his solitary cell, thinking of the needle.
"I'd toss and turn at night, trying to sleep," he said. "Cause I thought ... these people was going to kill me."
Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the convictions Tuesday. He said another man's DNA being found on a cigarette butt left near the body of the slain girl contradicted the case put forth by prosecutors.
The ruling was the latest twist in a notorious case that began with what defense attorneys said were coerced confessions from two scared teenagers with low IQs. McCollum was 19 at the time, and Brown was 15. There was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime including DNA from the cigarettes.
Defense lawyers petitioned for their release after a recent analysis from the discarded cigarette pointed to another man who lived near the Robeson County soybean field where Buie's body was found. That man is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and murder that happened less than a month later.
The men's freedom hinged largely on the new local prosecutor's acknowledgement of the strong evidence of their innocence.
Even if the men were granted a new trial, Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said: "Based upon this new evidence, the state does not have a case to prosecute." He said he is considering whether to reopen the case and file new charges against the now suspected man.
Brown and McCollum both were initially sentenced to death but those were overturned. At a second trial, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
Upon his release, McCollum expressed his belief that there are still other innocent men on the inside. He is at least the seventh death row inmate freed in North Carolina since 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It's very painful when you are attached to somebody like a brother or family, and you see that person on his last days," McCollum said. "A lot of them don't really want to die. ... And it hurt me the most to see the state take somebody's life, when they are committing murder their own self. But they don't see it that way."
Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew contributed to this report.