RALEIGH, N.C. – A man freed from death row after 30 years said Thursday he's grown weary of a tense debate over whether his lawyers are helping themselves to too much of his compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
A lawsuit filed by Henry McCollum and his half-brother against investigators has become entangled in questions of whether the men's lawyers are protecting their interests. The latest hearing included testy exchanges between the judge and those attorneys.
"I want this case to end," McCollum testified. "I'm tired of going through this. I want to go on with my life."
A court-appointed advocate for McCollum argued in a recent motion that the lawyers steered the half-brothers into dubious financial arrangements. Separately, Judge Terrence Boyle rejected a settlement that would have allowed the lawyers to claim $400,000 of $1 million in payments to the men from a town and its investigators.
Boyle had stern words for lawyer Patrick Megaro, who questioned why the case was stalling over concerns about his financial interest in the case.
"You better be careful here because the court has no interest other than the law," Boyle said.
Megaro said his goal was a swift resolution for McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, whom he also represents.
A separate state wrongful conviction compensation program has already awarded McCollum and Brown each $750,000. Megaro declined to tell the judge how much he was paid out of that award, saying it's not part of the current federal lawsuit.
The half-brothers, who had been behind bars for decades following the 1983 killing of an 11-year-old girl, were released from prison in 2014 because of DNA evidence. They were later pardoned. Their civil lawsuit alleges local and state authorities violated their civil rights.
Boyle is currently weighing whether McCollum was mentally competent to sign his representation agreement with Megaro. The judge said he would decide soon on whether to order a new competency evaluation.
The men's lawsuit against investigators, filed in 2015 by Megaro, notes they both have been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.
But Megaro argued Thursday that McCollum can handle his own affairs. McCollum agreed during his testimony.
"By the grace of God I have learned so much. I learned to travel by myself. I learned to work computers, phones," McCollum testified. "It feels good to be out here."
McCollum said he's now living with his fiancee in Virginia and writing a book about his life.
"My lawyers there have helped me out a lot," he said, adding that he's in contact with Megaro every day.
But under questioning from the court-appointed guardian ad-litem, Raymond Tarlton, McCollum said he didn't know how his sister was first introduced to Megaro. He also said he wasn't familiar with payments made to other consultants from his money. Guardians ad-litem can be assigned to children or people with intellectual disabilities.
Brown, who has a different legal guardian for the case, wasn't at the hearing.
McCollum's former lawyer Ken Rose testified that after he fought to secure his client's release from prison, Megaro abruptly told him in 2015 that he was taking over efforts to pursue a pardon and further litigation. Rose, the former head of the nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation, had represented McCollum for two decades.
"I felt very frustrated and powerless in that situation because I felt that he was being exploited," Rose said.
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.
After Thursday's hearing, McCollum said he wants the judge to let him make his own decisions.
"I'm competent," he said. "I pray the judge will do the right thing."
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