RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge has rejected a deal allowing lawyers for two wrongfully imprisoned men to claim $400,000 of a $1 million settlement with investigators.
Judge Terrence Boyle issued a written order denying the settlement agreement for half brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, men with low IQs who wrongly spent three decades behind bars for the killing of an 11-year-old girl. The settlement amount was revealed in newly unsealed documents after a coalition of news organizations asked that they be released.
Boyle’s order from Wednesday also names a court-appointed advocate for McCollum because of the judge’s concerns about his competency. The order notes that a settlement agreement can be filed again once the advocate gets involved. A lawyer previously arranged for Brown to have a similar advocate.
McCollum and Brown, who were released from prison in 2014 because of DNA evidence and later pardoned, had filed a civil lawsuit alleging local and state authorities violated their civil rights. They notified the court in April that they had reached a settlement with the town of Red Springs and two of its former investigators.
The newly unsealed documents show that McCollum and Brown would have received $500,000 each from the Red Springs defendants. Lawyers representing the men in the civil suit would have received about $200,000 from each of them, according to the April 12 request for court approval of the settlement.
The settlement notes the Red Springs defendants have denied wrongdoing in their responses to the lawsuit. A county sheriff and state agents named as defendants weren’t part of the settlement.
The documents were unsealed after news organizations including The Associated Press went to court to seek access to confidential filings in the case. The men’s lawyers had sought to keep the details of the settlement secret, along with numerous other documents.
But earlier this month, Boyle rejected the requests to seal many of the documents, saying the parties had failed to justify the need to keep the filings hidden.
Boyle has also questioned whether McCollum and Brown’s interests have been protected by their current lawyers, and whether they were legally competent to sign a contract with them.
One of their current lawyers, Patrick Megaro, didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment Friday.
McCollum, 53, and Brown, 49, were freed from prison in 2014 after DNA evidence indicated that another man raped and killed the girl. They were later pardoned and awarded $750,000 each from the state through a separate process for wrongful convictions.
McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when Sabrina Buie was killed in rural Robeson County. Their attorneys have said they were scared, had low IQs and were berated by investigators who fed them details about the crime before they signed confessions saying they were part of a group that killed the girl.
The two were initially given death sentences. In 1988, the state Supreme Court threw out their convictions and ordered new trials. McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was found guilty of rape and sentenced to life.
But no physical evidence connected them to the crime. A break in the case happened after the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission got involved several years ago and had a new DNA analysis done on evidence from the crime scene.
Robeson County’s current prosecutor said recently that no decision has been made on whether to pursue charges against the other man whose DNA was found on evidence at the scene. That man is in prison for another murder.
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