Court of Appeals backs suspension for lawyer who swindled wrongfully convicted Black men

Court of Appeals backs suspension for lawyer who swindled wrongfully convicted Black men

Henry McCollum (L) and Leon Brown (R) – Photos by Jenny Warburg (Courtesy of NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.)

A three-judge North Carolina Court of Appeals panel on Tuesday upheld the State Bar’s decision to suspend the license of an attorney who took hundreds of thousands of dollars from two Black men with intellectual disabilities who served more than 30 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. The unanimous ruling was authored by Judge Allegra Collins and joined by Judges Richard Dietz and Jeffery Carpenter.

The Disciplinary Hearing Commission of the North Carolina State Bar suspended Patrick Michael Megaro’s law license for five years in 2018 after concluding that he violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. The State Bar found that he was dishonest, charged excessive fees and engaged in “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

Megaro had represented Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two men sentenced to death in 1983 for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. The two men, teenagers at the time they were alleged to have carried out the brutal attack, appealed and were resentenced for the crime.

McCollum was again sentenced to death, but the jury found mitigating circumstances that he “was mentally retarded, that the offense was committed while he was under the influence of mental or emotional disturbance, that he is easily influenced by others, and [that] he has difficulty thinking clearly under stress.”

Brown, meanwhile, was convicted of first-degree rape in his retrial and sentenced to life in prison. The court didn’t find any error in his case on appeal, but the opinion included documents that stated Brown had an I.Q. score between 49 and 65, and that he suffers from “mild mental retardation.”

The two men, who are half brothers, were ultimately exonerated. Lawyers with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation filed a motion for appropriate relief in 1995, alleging that an incriminating statement McCollum had made was unreliable because of his intellectual disabilities. In 2002, they filed an amended complaint based on McCollum’s “subaverage intellectual functioning and significant limitations in adaptive functioning.”

In 2014, attorneys with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation filed another motion alleging McColllum was innocent based in part on DNA found on a cigarette butt left at the crime scene. The DNA didn’t match either McCollum or Brown, but instead an incarcerated person serving a life sentence for murdering a woman in the same area as Buie.

The trial court granted both McCollum’s and Brown’s motions for appropriate relief, vacating their convictions and sending them home from prison after they had spent 31 years behind bars.

Convoluted compensation schemes unravel

After their release, attorneys agreed to represent Brown and McCollum in civil lawsuits over the alleged misconduct of police officers involved in the investigation and prosecution of the brothers. The lawyers represented the men for free, filing pardon petitions with the governor and seeking compensation for the wrongful convictions. It was about this time that the cases caught the media’s attention. Charitable donations and financial assistance started rolling in for the men, according to the Court of Appeals decision.

Megaro didn’t figure into the cases until around 2015, after “consultant advisors” Kim Weekes and Deborah Pointer contacted Brown’s sister and told her they could help them.

Weekes and Pointer contacted Megaro about representing McCollum and Brown. Megaro read news reports of the brothers’ cases, reviewed transcripts of their court hearings and did some preliminary research.

Megaro then reached an agreement with Brown, McCollum and Brown’s sister, Geraldine Brown Ransom. The terms: Megaro would collect a contingency fee of up to 33% of any money recovered from Robeson County, the Red Springs Police Department and the state; the brothers were conveying to Megaro an “irrevocable interest in net proceeds arising from any recovery;” and Megaro was entitled to interest in the outcome of the case regardless of whether the brothers terminated their agreement with him.

By this point, the brothers’ pardon petitions had already been filed.

Megaro secured loans for McCollum and Brown, netting them a 19% interest rate compounded every six months on a $100,000 loan. Weekes and Pointer were given $10,000 from the initial loan proceeds.

After the governor pardoned the brothers, Megaro filed a joint petition seeking compensation for their wrongful incarceration. The attachments he filed were “almost exclusively the work” of previous attorneys on the case, Judge Collins wrote in her opinion. Megaro also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of McCollum and Brown against a slew of parties alleged to be responsible for their incarceration and conviction.

Brown, who has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was hospitalized in 2015. Megaro filed a petition with Cumberland County to have Brown declared incompetent and proposed that Brown’s sister be his guardian.

Brown and McCollum were each given $750,000 on Sept. 2, 2015. Megaro got the $1.5 million check. From there, Megaro’s distribution of the funds depleted the brothers’ share.

He took $500,000 as a contingency fee, leaving $500,000 for each brother.

Megaro then used almost $110,000 of each brother’s share to repay the loans Megaro had gotten for them.

He charged a total of $21,173.88 to the brothers for costs associated with the pardon process and relating to Brown’s incompetency hearing. And he used $25,972.14 to repay money he and his law firm advanced to the brothers prior to the loan.

McCollum came away with $358,363.28. After he spent all the money, Megaro helped him get another loan, $50,000 with an 18% interest rate.

After Brown’s sister was removed as his guardian for mismanaging his money, Megaro helped the sister get a $25,000 loan “against any future recovery made by Brown.”

Megaro told the federal court in April 2017 that he’d settle the lawsuit for $500,000. He claimed the brothers were competent to agree to the representation and settlement agreements and asked the court to approve the amount, including Megaro’s 33% fee.

Doubting McCollum’s capacity to enter into an agreement with Megaro, a judge directed Dr. George Corvin to conduct a competency evaluation. Corvin found that McCollum suffers from “psychological and intellectual limitations impairing his ability to manage his own affairs and make/communicate important decisions regarding his life without the assistance of others.” The judge found that McCollum wasn’t competent to manage his own affairs and that his agreement with Megaro was invalid.

The court wound up approving the proposed settlement, but not Megaro’s fee. Megaro was fired as McCollum’s attorney.

The North Carolina State Bar filed a disciplinary action against Megaro on Sept. 20, 2018, claiming he engaged in professional misconduct when he represented McCollum and Brown. The Bar suspended his law license for five years, subject to the proviso that he could petition for a stay after three years if he complied with certain terms, including paying $250,000 to McCollum and Brown.

Corvin again evaluated McCollum in early 2021 to determine if he had been competent to agree to be represented by Megaro and enter into a loan agreement with Multi Funding. Corvin found that McCollum had an intellectual disorder, and that he showed signs of impaired executive functioning. McCollum made impulsive decisions, the doctor said. He also suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the decades he spent wrongfully imprisoned. He suffered from flashbacks. When he sees police officers, it reminds him of what happened.

“It scares me,” McCollum told Corvin.

McCollum said he agreed to sign the paperwork allowing Megaro to handle his lawsuit and pardon because Megaro had given him and his brother money.

“But he had me fooled,” he said, adding that he thought Megaro had been doing “a good job, but I didn’t know how that he was taking that much money.”

The court’s decision

Megaro appealed the State Bar’s decision, arguing that the conclusions were “not supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence.”

The Court of Appeals panel disagreed. It cited the opinions of four mental health professionals who evaluated McCollum in 1995. One found that he was “mentally retarded” and had the intellectual functioning of a child between the ages of 8 and 10. They also said he was very susceptible to the influence of others, especially those in positions of authority.

The opinion also quotes an uncontested factual finding by the mental health professionals: “McCollum and Brown were easily manipulated and were particularly susceptible to manipulation and financial coercion, given their intellectual disabilities, decades in prison, and relative poverty.”

Megaro himself had admitted in a petition for compensation that McCollum and Brown had “limited mental abilities,” and said each man had I.Q. scores in the 50s, within the range of intellectual disability.

In Brown’s incompetency petition, Megaro said that both brothers needed help with budgeting their money because they didn’t understand the concept of monthly bills

The Court of Appeals judges ruled there were “clear, cogent and convincing evidence” that support the State Bar’s findings and discipline order.

Megaro also argued that the $250,000 restitution payment to the brothers was not supported by “clear, cogent and convincing evidence.”

Again, the judges disagreed.

Megaro pocketed $500,000 for preparing compensation petitions and attending a hearing on behalf of the brothers, despite the fact that his attachment to the petitions “were almost exclusively” the work of other lawyers. A contingent fee paid to Megaro for representation was also improper, Collins wrote, since McCollum and Brown were entitled to the maximum compensation allowed by law.

“The $250,000 restitution payment ordered by the DHC [Disciplinary Hearing Commission] is a conservative estimate of the amount Defendant collected that he was not entitled to, and a generous assessment of the value of Defendant’s services in the Industrial Commission proceeding,” Collins wrote.

The ruling can be found on this webpage.