Federal Judge Voids Contract Between Death Row Exoneree and Attorney
by David Reutter
A North Carolina federal district court has voided a contract between death row exoneree Henry McCollum and his lawyer. The court’s unusual move was based on evidence that due to his low IQ, McCollum was vulnerable to manipulation.
As previously reported in PLN, McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, were released after serving over 30 years for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. DNA evidence proved their innocence and revealed the crime was actually committed by Roscoe Artis – someone McCollum had served time with on death row and believed was his friend. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.58].
Cases such as McCollum and Brown’s became magnets for consultants and attorneys hoping to cash in on fees for the ensuing wrongful conviction lawsuits. Shortly after the brothers were released in September 2014, Kimberly Weekes, a consultant in Atlanta, heard about their situation and decided that she and her partner, Deborah Pointer in New York, could put pressure on the governor’s office to grant a pardon.
In January 2015, Weekes and Pointer signed a contract with McCollum and Brown to provide “advocacy and civil rights” services. The agreement included an advance payable to the consultants, plus they would receive five percent of any compensation from the state and one percent from any civil litigation.
“They came out of the jail with nothing.... They were in pretty bad shape when we came on board,” Pointer said in defending the payment arrangement. “You reward people that help you. I mean, that’s how I work.”
The assertion that the brothers did not have any help was not true, as the attorneys who fought for 20 years to obtain their release were behind them. Ken Rose and other supporters at the North Carolina Center on Death Penalty Litigation raised more than $14,000 for clothing, rent and utility bills, and a social worker helped them enroll in Medicare and the food stamp program.
Once Weekes and Pointer had a contract in hand, they urged the brothers to fire their attorneys. In what Weekes described as a “match made in heaven,” the consultants settled on Patrick Megaro of Florida and Scott Brettschneider of New York as the new legal team for McCollum and Brown.
After he signed on with an “irrevocable interest” in a sliding contingency fee, Megaro offered his firm’s guarantee of a $200,000 loan to the brothers – with 19 percent interest. Of that amount, Weekes and Pointer took $10,000. But just seven months after obtaining $750,000 in compensation from North Carolina, McCollum was running out of money. Megaro approved another loan for $60,000 at an interest rate of 38 percent.
“The problem with this case is there’s no one in the case to stand up for the two plaintiffs,” U.S District Court Judge Terrence Boyle wrote in an October 23, 2017 order. “It’s fraught with danger, and it requires care.”
Boyle appointed Raymond Tarlton as McCollum’s guardian ad litem.
McCollum and his brother, who have IQs in the 50s and gave false confessions that contributed to their wrongful convictions, were in need of protection, Judge Boyle believed. “A person who is not competent is like a two-year-old,” he said at a hearing. “They didn’t have a right to make decisions for themselves.”
After reviewing all the evidence, Boyle held that “Despite his desire to proceed for himself and manage his own affairs, McCollum continues signs of being easily manipulated and a lack of understanding his attorneys.” Consequently, he voided the contract between McCollum and Megaro. A decision on whether Brown’s contract with Megaro should be voided remains pending. See: Tarlton v. Town of Red Springs, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:15-cv-451-BO; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174901.
The decision was highly unusual.
“I’m not aware of any case where a judge has removed a lawyer from such a case,” said Jon Elden, an attorney who founded After Innocence, a nonprofit organization that assists wrongfully convicted prisoners following their release.
McCollum and his brother settled a lawsuit over their wrongful convictions in April 2017, under confidential terms. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.54].
Sources: www.themarshallproject.org, Charlotte News Observer
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Related legal case
Tarlton v. Town of Red Springs
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:15-cv-451-BO; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174901|