RALEIGH, N.C. — Lawyer fees and high-interest loans are threatening the financial futures of two North Carolina brothers who have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for their three decades of wrongful imprisonment, a court-appointed advocate said Wednesday.
The advocate argued in a legal motion that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were steered into dubious financial arrangements by lawyers who stand to profit from the men’s lawsuit against the investigators who put them behind bars. Raymond Tarlton, the court-appointed advocate for McCollum, asked federal Judge Terrence Boyle to rule that McCollum wasn’t competent enough to sign the representation agreement with the men’s current lawyers.
In May, Boyle rejected a settlement that would have allowed the lawyers to claim $400,000 of $1 million in settlements with a town and two of its investigators, according to court documents. In the same ruling, Boyle appointed Tarlton to represent McCollum as a guardian ad-litem because of concerns about his competency.
The half-brothers were released from prison in 2014 because of DNA evidence and later pardoned in the 1983 killing of an 11-year-old girl. Their civil lawsuit alleges local and state authorities violated their civil rights.
In his filing Wednesday, Tarlton said the legal fees and interest on loans would leave McCollum with only about $178,000 of his $500,000 share of the proposed settlement with the town of Red Springs.
A separate state wrongful conviction compensation program also awarded McCollum and Brown each $750,000. Yet Tartlon notes that in the months after receiving the payout, McCollum’s finances had deteriorated to the point that he took out high-interest loans of $50,000 and $15,000 against any future settlements.
Court documents show the interest rate on the loans from Multi Funding USA was 18 percent compounded every six months. Attorney Patrick Megaro signed paperwork acknowledging that he had explained each loan contract to McCollum.
Megaro and two other lawyers working with him on the case didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. The legal team began representing the men in 2015 after they were released from prison, Tarlton wrote.
Multi Funding USA didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Tarlton’s filing indicates that loans were also sought for Brown, but doesn’t detail them. Brown has a separate legal guardian for the case who was arranged by his lawyers and approved by the court.
The men’s lawyers notified the court in April that they had reached a settlement with the town of Red Springs and two of its former investigators. A county sheriff and state agents named as defendants weren’t part of the settlement.
But Boyle himself has 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. The judge has said a settlement could be submitted again after Tarlton got involved.
Boyle’s order said Tarlton, who’s also a lawyer, would be paid an unspecified amount out of court costs. Tarlton referred back to Boyle’s order when asked about his compensation Wednesday.
The Fayetteville lawyer serving as Brown’s guardian in court didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when Sabrina Buie was killed in rural Robeson County. Defense attorneys have said they were scared teens with low IQs who were berated by investigators and fed details about the crime before they signed fabricated confessions.
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.
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