Wrongfully Convicted Brothers Awarded $75 Million in North Carolina
You may already have heard of the case of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, half-brothers who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for rape and murder in North Carolina, serving 30 years. While they were pardoned and released in 2014, in May of 2021 they were awarded $75 million by a jury in a federal civil rights case. This award was hard-fought after a great deal of legal turmoil that the brothers faced due to a prior lawyer’s dishonest actions. Attorney Raymond Tarlton of Tarlton Polk stepped in as McCollum’s ‘guardian ad litem’, or appointed legal guardian, to best serve his interest in court and assemble the honest legal representation he and his brother deserved.
What Happened to McCollum and Brown?
McCollum and Brown were manipulated and abused at just about every step of the way in their over 30 years in prison and legal battles. In 1983, law enforcement members in Red Springs, Robeson County, in an effort to close a murder and rape case, attempted and succeeded in coercing the half-brothers to confessing to a crime they did not commit. They were both targeted for being, as post-conviction litigation has shown, deeply intellectually impaired teens, who did not understand what they were facing in their trial or what they were admitting to. When DNA evidence revealed that another man who had already admitted to similar crimes was the perpetrator, they were both released from prison and pardoned of their crimes.
They then pursued the statutory award of $750,000 each from the North Carolina Industrial Commission for their wrongful conviction and the unlawful behavior of law enforcement that cost them 30 years of their lives. They initially were represented by pro-bono counsel, but as these matters were pending, Patrick Megaro, a lawyer at Halscott Megaro, replaced their pro bono counsel. When doing so, he had them sign a representation agreement with them covering any claim related to their convictions and eventual exoneration.
When the brothers were rewarded their $750,000 each, they found that much of that money quickly disappeared. Megaro took $500,000 as his fee, not including other costs and expenses. As the brothers were falling back into poverty, Megaro pursued other lawsuits against the Town of Red Springs and more on their behalf. Due to questions regarding the brother’s competency to enter all these settlements, the Eastern District Court of North Carolina appointed Raymond Tarlton as McCollum’s guardian ad litem. It was then that Mr. Tarlton investigated and began to challenge the representation agreement between McCollum and Megaro that appeared to be exploitative.
Challenging Megaro's Contract
Mr. Tarlton challenged the agreement between Megaro and McCollum on the basis of McCollum and Brown’s lack of competency. After all, the brother’s wrongful conviction lawsuit’s success was based on the fact that they were manipulated by law enforcement due to their intellectual disabilities. It would make sense that if they could not understand what crime they were being manipulated into confessing to, they wouldn’t understand a complex legal representation agreement. The court ruled in McCollum and Brown’s favor, rendering the agreement invalid.
Megaro still continued to represent the brothers for a while, and the court approved the settlement with Red Springs. However, they directed Megaro to file a motion for attorney’s fee’s that the court would review in a separate order. Later, Tarlton and Brown’s guardian ad litem, Duane Gilliam, filed a motion to have Megaro removed and substituted on the case, which the court did. The brother’s new counsel took over the lawsuit to obtain relief, went to trial, and the jury verdict awarded them the $75 million.
The Bar Investigates Megaro
While the brothers were going through trial for relief and damages, the North Carolina State Bar opened a disciplinary investigation into the circumstances of their representation with Megaro. Following a hearing, the Bar determined that Megaro had violated North Carolina’s rules of professional conduct. Relevant to this lawsuit, the board found that Megaro:
- Entered into a representation agreement with someone who he knew did not have the capacity to enter such an agreement.
- Claimed an impermissible irrevocable fee and charged an excessive fee.
- Made misrepresentations to the US District Court regarding his entitlement to fees from the settlement with the Town of Red Springs.
For those violations and others, the Bar suspended his license to practice in North Carolina for five years, and ordered him to return his fees to McCollum and Brown.
Megaro Strikes Back, and Fails
Megaro’s law firm decided to strike back with a lawsuits to ‘recover’ their attorney fees, suing the brothers and their guardians. The first filed a suit in the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida,hoping that the Florida court would favor them when North Carolina did not. However, the defendants filed a notice of removal to have the case transferred back to the Eastern District of North Carolina, which was granted.
The reason the case was returned to North Carolina was that none of the defendants resided in Florida, nor did a substantial part of the events given rise to their lawsuit take place in Florida. Megaro’s firm attempted to argue that they had staff working on the case based in Florida, but the court affirmed that those activities do not have a “close nexus” to the wrong Megaro’s firm alleged they suffered. While they claim that harm was because McCollum terminated paying legal fees, the agreement to pay such fees was made in North Carolina, so lies outside the jurisdiction of Florida. The Eastern District of North Carolina already approved of the contract’s termination, and therefore retained its jurisdiction over that issue.
Ultimately, the Middle District Court of Florida ordered that the defendant’s Motion to Transfer is granted, so the legal proceedings will return to North Carolina
What Will Happen Next?
With Megaro’s counter lawsuit against Mr. Tarlton, Gilliam and the brothers returned to North Carolina, it is unlikely that Megaro will succeed in challenging a court’s own decisions. However, this may not be the end of legal troubles for the brothers, as there may still be other avenues Megaro’s firm decides to pursue to further drain the brother’s of precious time.
While this case has taken many tragic turns, it goes to show that hiring a trust-worthy lawyer plays a huge role in the outcome of your case beyond the courtroom. If you have faced civil rights violations such as wrongful conviction, police misconduct, asset forfeiture, and more, consider reaching our to attorney Raymond Tarlton for help with your case, by requesting a consultation below.