Public Justice Announces Winners for 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice Announces Winners for 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice’s 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year award was awarded to an incredible group of attorneys who took on a landmark case that exposed an egregious incident of police corruption and abuse in North Carolina.

This year’s award was presented to the winning team – McCollum et al. v. Robeson County et al. – during Public Justice’s 40th Annual Gala & Awards Presentation, held the evening of Monday, July 18 in Seattle, Washington.

The other finalists for the award were Hawaiʻi v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., et al., In re Flint Water Cases, and McArdle v. City of Ocala. Read about the accomplishments of all the finalists here. Information about previous TLOY winners is available here.

McCollum et al. v. Robeson County et al.

For more than three decades, two innocent men sat on death row after being wrongfully accused of rape and murder as a result of racial profiling and police corruption and abuse. Following their exoneration, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown filed a civil lawsuit against the individuals responsible for their decades-long incarceration. After more than six years following their exoneration, the two men received a $75 million trial award, as well as $10 million in settlements, as they continue working to rebuild their lives

Half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were 19 and 15, respectively, when they were arrested and charged for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in the fall of 1983 in Robeson County, North Carolina. After being interrogated under duress until they confessed to the crime, both were sentenced to death, where Brown became the youngest person on North Carolina’s death row.

For the next 30 years, the two men endured decades of suffering during their imprisonment, where they were targeted for their intellectual disabilities and repeatedly bullied and sexually assaulted. In 2010, Brown sought help from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, and in September of 2014, the two brothers were exonerated and released from prison after the Commission tested DNA evidence from the crime scene, implicating another suspect who had been convicted of a similar crime. While Brown’s sentence had been reduced to life in prison, McCollum remained on death row before being released, making him the longest-serving prisoner on North Carolina’s death row.

Following their exoneration, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on August 31, 2015, in the Eastern District of North Carolina, against the officers from the Red Springs, North Carolina Police Department, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI).

In their suit, the two brothers alleged that the officers and government entities violated their due process rights, when police coerced them into confessing while fabricating evidence against them and suppressing exculpatory evidence. Additionally, the brothers argued that the combination of McCollum and Brown’s youth and intellectual disabilities made them vulnerable to manipulation and coercion by police.

The officers filed a motion to dismiss their claims on the basis of qualified immunity in October of 2015. In March of 2016, the district court denied the motion, holding that the brothers were entitled to recover damages from the officers based on their claims. Following an appeal of that decision in March of 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court ruling on July 30, 2019, rejecting the police officers’ claim that they were immune from liability, and allowing McCollum and Brown to proceed with their suit against the SBI agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead and Robeson County detectives Joel Garth Locklear and Kenneth Sealey.

Throughout the five-day jury trial beginning on May 10, 2021, details of the brothers’ horrifying experience came to light, revealing how they were abused and wrongfully treated from the moment they were arrested.  For example, McCollum was told that if he signed a form, he could go home. This form turned out to be a form waiving McCollum’s Miranda rights. During interrogation, the officers threatened him and his brother, called them racial epithets, and forced them to sign another document that ended up being a confession written by one of the officers. Due to the brothers’ intellectual disabilities, they were unable to read or decipher the document and had no understanding that by signing these fabricated confessions, prosecutors would use them as the primary evidence for sending them to death row.

In 2015, the state of North Carolina paid each of the brothers $750,000 as compensation for their time in prison. In 2017, the Red Springs Police Department settled for $1 million, while Robeson County agreed to a $9 million settlement on May 14, 2021, just before closing arguments began. On that same day, the jury returned a verdict against SBI in the brothers’ favor, awarding each plaintiff $31 million in compensatory damages ($1 million for each year they spent in prison), including $13 million in punitive damages, for a total award of $75 million.  The trial court later awarded the brothers prejudgment interest and attorneys fees, increasing the award to over $100 million.

Today, both men still suffer from significant mental health problems and PTSD caused by their incarceration. Brown, whose intellectual disabilities were compounded by his experience in prison, now requires full-time care. The $75 million award remains the largest in the U.S. in a wrongful conviction case and the largest personal injury case award in North Carolina history. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer even cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.

Finally, this case highlights how racial bias and discrimination infects the criminal justice system, including police and prosecutorial misconduct, and the need to ensure that constitutional and due process rights are vindicated and protected.

TEAM: Elliot Sol Abrams of Cheshire Parker Schneider, PLLC of Raleigh, N.C.; Elizabeth C. Lockwood of Ali & Lockwood LLP in Washington, D.C.; and Catherine E. Stetson, E. Desmond Hogan, and W. David Maxwell of Hogan Lovells US LLP of Washington, D.C.

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