Federal Appeals Court reduces judgment for pardoned NC brothers by $46 million

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  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a jury's award of tens of millions of dollars to two N.C. brothers who spent more than 30 years in prison on false charges. But the size of the overall award will drop by at least $46 billion.
  • Henry McCollum and Leon Brown received pardons of innocence after their release from prison.

Two N.C. brothers imprisoned for more than 30 years before winning release and an official government pardon are entitled to tens of millions of dollars a jury awarded them in a federal trial. But a federal Appeals Court has reduced the award by at least $46 million.

In Gilliam v. Allen, a unanimous 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a jury’s ruling in favor of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. Jurors determined the two men were entitled to $75 million from two law enforcement officers who played key roles in their long imprisonment.

While affirming the jury’s decision, the Appeals Court struck down the trial judge’s award of $36 million in interest on a portion of that $75 million award. Appellate judges also struck another $10 million to account for money the brothers secured in settlements with other defendants in their case. A trial court will have to determine whether to subtract another $1.5 million to account for a payment from state government.

Instead of collecting $111 million, then, the two brothers are owed $63.5 million to $65 million, depending on further court proceedings. The 4th Circuit judges also upheld the trial court’s decision to award $6.25 million in lawyers’ fees.

“In September 1983, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled
teenage half-brothers from Red Springs, North Carolina, were, as a jury later found,
coerced into signing fabricated confessions, leading to their convictions for the rape and
murder of an 11-year-old girl,” Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for the unanimous 4th Circuit panel. “McCollum, the older brother, was sentenced to death, while Brown, the younger brother, was sentenced to life imprisonment.”

“Following an investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission
and the testing of DNA evidence, a state court vacated the brothers’ convictions, finding
there to be “significant evidence that they [were], in fact, innocent,’” Niemeyer wrote. “Thereafter, North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory granted each a ‘Pardon of Innocence.’ When they were released in September 2014, McCollum and Brown had served 31 years in prison.”

McCollum and Brown worked through appointed guardians in 2015 to sue Robeson County, Red Springs, and six law enforcement officers in federal court. All but two officers ended up settling with the falsely imprisoned brothers. SBI agents Kenneth Snead and Leroy Allen were the only defendants who remained involved in the case through the full trial.

When a jury reached its 2021 decision on $75 million in damages for the brothers, “The district court observed that the verdicts were likely ‘the highest jury award in a wrongful conviction case to date,’” Niemeyer wrote.

The 4th Circuit rejected the SBI agents’ arguments that their trial “was procedurally flawed and unfair.” So appellate judges rejected the request for a new trial.

But the Appeals Court did fault U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle for his approach to money McCollum and Brown had secured from settlements with other defendants.

“When the district court addressed this issue with counsel during the trial, the parties agreed to a jury instruction telling the jury that if it returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, it should find all damages caused by the violations and should not take into account any settlements because the court would take care of any adjustments that might be appropriate. But when the court entered the judgment, it did not make any adjustments to account for prior recoveries,” Niemeyer wrote.

In addition to $10 million in settlements from other defendants, the 4th Circuit raised questions about $1.5 million awarded to McCollum and Brown from state taxpayers. A trial judge will have to determine whether that money should be subtracted from the jury’s award.

The largest change to Boyle’s initial ruling was the 4th Circuit’s decision to eliminate $36 million in interest payments.

“Because the district court could not know how much the damages were at any given point in time or what portion of damages represented compensation for future suffering, there was no way for it to calculate prejudgment interest,” Niemeyer wrote. “Moreover, if the jury compensated the plaintiffs for future damages, there would, in any event, be no loss of use of money as to them. Thus, damages for injuries that the plaintiffs were suffering even at the time of trial in 2021 and into the future could not bear interest. In view of the nature of the injuries and the jury’s general verdict, any “calculation” of interest on amounts as they accrued could only be the product of speculation and not compensation for the loss of use of money.”

“Finally, it is striking, in light of the jury’s large verdict, which the court observed was unprecedented in size, that the court found it to be a ‘manifest injustice’ that the plaintiffs were not awarded another 50%,” Niemeyer added.

“At bottom, we conclude that the district court’s award of prejudgment interest was
based on error and constituted an abuse of discretion,” Niemeyer wrote.

Judges Stephanie Thacker and Julius Richardson joined Niemeyer’s opinion.