Henry McCollum, with an IQ of 56, spent more than 30 years on North Carolina’s death row after his guardian says he was prodded into confessing to a notorious rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
Now McCollum is free, thanks to DNA evidence. But he’s piling up debt, and his guardian is posing this question in federal court: Does the mental disability that came into play with his confession now make him vulnerable to a Florida lawyer he chose to represent him?
U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle, who heard testimony Thursday in Raleigh, decided he needed to learn more before making a decision.
But he did hear from McCollum, who now lives in South Boston, Va., is engaged to be married and said he fully understands the agreement he signed with Patrick Megaro of Orlando, Fla.
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McCollum told the court that he understood what he was doing and that he trusts Megaro. He said he knew life was going to be difficult when he got out of prison, but that he’s adjusted.
“I travel alone. I have a cellphone, a computer,” he said. “Also, I am studying to get my GED, to go to college. I’ve learned how to pay bills. I have a home. In order to adjust out here, you have to have an education and I’m soon to be married. Also, I’m studying for my driver’s license.”
According to his court-appointed guardian, Raymond Tarlton of Raleigh, McCollum has plunged deeply into debt with high-interest loans and would stand to pocket little of a proposed $500,000 settlement with the town of Red Springs, whose police officers were involved in eliciting the confession.
In an affidavit filed in court, Tarlton said that two loans totaling $65,000 have ballooned to $110,000 in about a year. They carry 18 percent interest, compounded every 6 months, he said.
After paying nearly $212,000 in legal fees and the $110,000 loan, McCollum would have about $178,000 left from the settlement, Tarlton said.
Megaro deflected Tarlton’s concerns, saying that McCollum was in position to decide how he wanted to be represented.
Boyle seemed skeptical. He said his goal was to protect McCollum’s interest.
“A person who is not competent is like a 2-year-old,” the judge said. “They don’t have the right to make decisions for themselves.”
A snub in court
McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, were arrested in 1983 and charged with raping and killing 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. McCollum spent more than 30 years on death row; his brother was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2014, officials from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found DNA evidence matching another convicted murderer on a cigarette butt found at the scene. Attorneys for the brothers had been previously told the evidence had been destroyed. They were freed by a judge in September 2014.
Brown, with an IQ of 54, suffers from schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder. He has been declared incompetent and is a ward of the state living in a Cumberland County group home.
Thursday’s hearing revolved around McCollum. Thomas Harbin, a Fayetteville psychologist, interviewed McCollum in March after reviewing an evaluation of the psychological impact of his incarceration, trial transcripts, case summaries, and medical and educational histories.
Harbin told the court that under North Carolina state law, a person who is mentally disabled is not necessarily mentally incompetent.
“I believe at the time I interviewed him he was competent,” Harbin said. “The only concern that I had was his immediate history of blowing money, and he put most of my doubts to rest.”
Ken Rose, the recently retired executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, represented McCollum for 20 years. He sought the DNA evidence that led to the release of McCollum and Brown; he testified Thursday that his former client was easily influenced.
“The same vulnerability that subjected Henry to make a false confession and death row is now subjecting him to exploitation and control,” Rose said.
Rose has exchanged terse letters with Megaro, who told Rose in 2015 to stay away from McCollum and Brown.
After Friday’s hearing, Rose tried to greet his former client. McCollum refused to speak to him.