A federal judge said Thursday that he will approve a $1 million payout from a North Carolina town to two half brothers wrongfully imprisoned for 30 years, but the men's attorneys must justify their cut of the proceeds before the court finalizes the settlement.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle's unexpected decision to allow the settlement to proceed came amid a protracted battle over whether Henry McCollum and Leon Brown's current attorneys were taking financial advantage of them. Each man will receive $500,000 from the town of Red Springs under the deal, and any fees for the legal team representing the men must be approved by Boyle.
The settlement won't end the lawsuit against a county sheriff and state agents who aren't part of the deal.
The half brothers, imprisoned following the 1983 killing of an 11-year-old girl, were released in 2014 because of DNA evidence that pointed to another man. They were later pardoned. Both have low IQs, and their original attorneys said they were scared teens berated by investigators before they signed fabricated confessions.
Boyle had rejected the settlement in May because of concerns about McCollum's ability to understand his contract with his new lawyers — who aren't the ones who helped free him and Brown from prison in 2014. Boyle ruled in October that McCollum wasn't mentally competent to sign the representation agreement, and the judge has also appointed an advocate known as a guardian ad litem to watch out for McCollum's interests.
Thursday's hearing began with arguments by McCollum's attorneys that he was mentally fit to sign up with them.
Boyle then called a half-hour recess and urged the attorneys try to work out differences with the guardian ad litem, who has argued McCollum was steered into dubious financial arrangements by the legal team.
"That would allow the case to refocus on its primary goal," Boyle said.
When the parties returned, Boyle announced he would allow the settlement but also review the attorney fees, which will come out of the $500,000 settlements.
He said the attorneys who brought the lawsuit can continue to represent McCollum and Brown, but they must work with the guardian ad litem and a separate legal guardian for Brown.
"Take it or leave it," he told lead attorney Patrick Megaro.
Megaro told Boyle he would agree to the plan.
It wasn't immediately clear how big of a cut the lawyers will seek. The previous proposal rejected by Boyle would have allowed them the lawyers to claim $400,000 of the $1 million in payments.
McCollum's guardian ad litem, Raymond Tarlton, wrote in a July that Megaro helped steer the men into high-interest loans and other dubious financial arrangements that threaten their financial futures.
Separate from the lawsuit, Boyle wrote in a previous ruling that McCollum says his lawyers claimed half of his $750,000 payout from North Carolina under a compensation program for wrongful convictions.
Brown's legal guardian, Duane Gilliam, said Thursday that Brown has about $300,000 left from the state payout but told the judge he didn't know how the remainder was spent. Gilliam became involved in the case in 2016, months after the state paid the two men for their wrongful imprisonment.
"Where did the other $400,000 go?" Boyle said. "Did you make any effort to recover that?"