Mr. Brown had had psychotic breaks in prison, which were now getting worse. His sister could not get him to take his antipsychotic medications. She said he had talked about being raped by inmates and tied to his bunk by guards. He worried that God wouldn’t forgive him. He rocked in place and refused to eat or drink for days.
The day before the administrative hearing, Mr. Megaro requested that Ms. Brown be named Leon Brown’s guardian, despite her inability to manage his mental illness or her own finances. Creditors have filed at least 16 liens against her; she has been evicted three times. Nevertheless, the guardianship was granted.
In October, North Carolina wrote Mr. Megaro a check for $1.5 million, half intended for each client, tax-free. Mr. Megaro took more than one-third of each brother’s compensation, according to Mr. Brown’s court files and Mr. McCollum. Payment on the high-interest loan took another $110,000. Each brother was left with less than half of his award.
Mr. Megaro declined to discuss his fees, the loans, the payments to the advocates or making Ms. Brown guardian.
In an April 2017 interview, he denied taking advantage of his clients.
“I like these guys,” Mr. Megaro said. “They are nice people, even if they are mentally disabled. It doesn’t matter.”
‘Fraudsters and Frivolous Spending’
Mr. Rose, who worked pro bono on the pardons, had planned to protect the brothers’ money in trusts that guaranteed fixed payments for life, about $3,000 a month each, based on the $750,000 awards.
That has been the practice in North Carolina: Exonerees keep their entire compensation. Lawyers are typically paid by taking a cut of settlements with the police.
For his part, Mr. Megaro did not set up trusts, even after admitting in court that his clients needed protection from “fraudsters and frivolous spending.” After taking his cut, Mr. Megaro distributed the remainder to Mr. McCollum and began sending money to Ms. Brown, as Leon’s guardian.
Mr. McCollum was soon broke and borrowing with Mr. Megaro’s approval. He would not discuss where the money went.
His brother’s finances, supervised by the court, have more of a paper trail. Although guardians can legally spend money only on their wards, Ms. Brown bought women’s jewelry and shoes, diapers and toys.
Motor vehicle records show she also acquired a Dodge van, 2010 Mustang, 2004 BMW and 1995 Lexus.
The court ultimately stripped her of the guardianship and cut off access to her brother’s money. At a hearing, Ms. Brown admitted she had also asked Mr. McCollum for thousands of dollars and had taken out a $25,000 high-interest loan in Leon Brown’s name, also with Mr. Megaro’s approval.
The judge found her in contempt of court and ordered her jailed.
“Why you would take advantage of a poor soul like that, I do not know,” the judge said.
Ms. Brown replied: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
She conceded in an interview that she should have never been made guardian. When it comes to lawyers, loans and contracts, Ms. Brown said: “I’m incompetent too. I’m not going to stand here and lie.”
Last spring, Mr. Megaro filed court papers saying he had reached a settlement with the Red Springs police. Each client would be awarded $500,000.
Judge Terrence Boyle of Federal District Court announced he would not approve any settlement before determining whether Mr. McCollum was competent to sign the contract with Mr. Megaro. Judge Boyle appointed a guardian to investigate.
The guardian discovered the predatory loans. He learned Mr. Megaro had not set up a trust or estimated his clients’ future medical needs. After Mr. Megaro’s fees and loan payments, Mr. McCollum would net $178,000 and Mr. Brown $308,000 from the police settlement.
At the next hearing, Mr. Megaro angered the judge by repeatedly refusing to reveal his fees for the earlier state compensation.
When Mr. McCollum testified, his yearning for independence was palpable. He had learned to pay bills and use a computer and iPhone. He had five Facebook accounts.
He said he trusted Mr. Megaro, yet he knew little about legal matters or how Mr. Megaro entered the case.
Mr. Megaro insisted that Mr. McCollum was competent to hire his own lawyer.
Judge Boyle zeroed in on this claim when Mr. Rose took the stand: “Is it your impression that the same vulnerability that subjected him to a false confession and 31 years of death row imprisonment is now operating on his claims for recovery, that he’s subject to manipulation and control?”
Mr. Rose responded: “There’s no question in my mind, your honor, that’s true.”
After the hearing, when Mr. Rose went to shake Mr. McCollum’s hand, his client of 20 years turned and walked away.
At the next hearing, Judge Boyle declared that the brothers were incompetent and that their contracts with Mr. Megaro were void.
The judge said he would approve the police settlement, $500,000 for each brother, and would determine Mr. Megaro’s fees. Court-appointed guardians would put the money in trust and the brothers would not be obliged to repay their loans out of the settlement.
Mr. Megaro agreed to the terms but the case is far from over. The State Bureau of Investigation and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office still face lawsuits.
Mr. McCollum lives in Virginia with his fiancé. On Monday, a judge there appointed a guardian to protect Mr. McCollum’s finances and recover any misappropriated money.
Mr. Brown lives in a North Carolina group home, where his sister visits regularly and sometimes takes him home on weekends. In a phone call, Mr. Brown said he didn’t belong in a group home. “A judge put me here,” he said. “I want my freedom.”
As for Ms. Pointer and Ms. Weekes, they said they were still owed $75,000 from the state compensation and may sue Mr. Megaro. Asked if she had any regrets, Ms. Pointer said she was offended by the question.
“We came into this with pure hearts to help two brothers who had suffered,” she said.
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