Seven death-row inmates in North Carolina have been exonerated in recent years. When many of them are released they’re often left to navigate the legal system and a society they haven’t been a part of for years or even decades.
Often in need of legal assistance, they sometimes end up with unscrupulous attorneys who offer to sue the parties responsible for their wrongful conviction, looking for a large piece of their settlement.
Co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic Jim Coleman explains.
“Somebody who comes along and offers them money in exchange for an agreement in which, if they recover, the lawyer will be paid out of the recovery, they’re sort of easy marks for that kind of an arrangement,” he explains.
Recently, Henry McCollum, who spent three decades on North Carolina’s death row for a wrongful conviction, became the latest victim of the practice. A judge threw out a settlement that would have allowed his lawyers to claim $400,000 of the $1 million settlement in payments from investigators in the case. Additionally, McCollum’s lawyers claimed half of a $750,000 payout from the state.
Coleman says McCollum also is intellectually disabled – a condition that makes him even more vulnerable after spending 30 years in prison with little education or real-world skill training.
“In prison, there’s no effort to prepare them for eventual release,” he says. “The result is that, when they come out, they don’t have the skills to deal with day-to-day living, and they’re often desperate financially.”
Coleman says the judge’s ruling in McCollum’s case is unusual, and often the court chooses not to intervene, even in instances where an arrangement may be unfair to the wrongfully convicted. The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic investigates claims of innocence made by incarcerated felons, helps manage their cases and gathers documentation.