District to pay $16.65 million to wrongly imprisoned man, attorneys say

District to pay $16.65 million to wrongly imprisoned man, attorneys say

The D.C. government will pay $16.65 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit after a jury found that D.C. police framed an innocent man who served 27 years in prison for a 1981 rape and murder, his lawyers said Thursday.

Attorneys for Donald E. Gates, 64, of Knoxville, Tenn., announced the settlement and called for formal investigations into police misconduct.

The settlement came one day after a
nine-person jury found that two D.C. homicide detectives fabricated all or part of a confession purportedly made by Gates to a paid police informant and withheld other evidence in a fatal attack on a 21-year-old Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park.

Gates was exonerated in the June 1981 killing through DNA testing and released from prison in 2009.

“I’m absolutely elated. The only thing I can do is thank the Lord,” Gates said. “I’m hoping the message goes around the country: You can’t violate a black man or black woman’s civil rights, or no American citizen’s civil rights anywhere. That’s what I hope.”

Gates’s attorneys said they will formally request reviews of detectives’ conduct during the original case and on the stand this month.

They said they will ask D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D), U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips and the Justice Department to do an audit of all homicide investigations in which defendants Ronald S. Taylor and Norman Brooks, now retired, served as lead detectives.

They also will ask the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office “to investigate the appropriateness of criminal charges” against lead detective Taylor for perjury, said Peter Neufeld, one of Gates’s attorneys with the Neufeld Scheck & Brustin law firm of New York.

“There is no doubt at this trial that the jury determined that he lied to them,” Neufeld said, “and when you lie in a federal court under oath on a material matter that’s perjury.”

Spokesmen for Racine and Phillips could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gates’s case was the first federal civil rights claim for damages involving a wrongful conviction in the District.

By law, jurors faced no limit on how much money they could award Gates in compensatory damages in a civil trial before Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts of U.S. District Court. Since last October , federal juries in New York State have awarded $41 million and $18 million to wrongfully convicted men who brought civil rights claims against police, or upwards of $1 million per year of incarceration.

The prospect of a large award plainly weighed on District attorneys who addressed jurors at the opening of a damages phase Wednesday.

“We know that given the verdict Mr. Gates is entitled to compensation, but we ask in reaching your decision that you continue to exercise common sense in determining damages that are rationally related,” said Joseph A. Gonzalez of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, which represented the detectives.

By terms of the agreement, the lawsuit will be dismissed and the District agrees not to appeal or seek any off-set for nearly $1.4 million that Gates previously received from the U.S. government. That payment came under a federal law that grants $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment to innocent individuals who waive claims against federal officials.

Gates also dropped a claim before Roberts for damages against the District under the city’s Unjust Imprisonment Act. Such awards are uncapped and set by a judge.

The combined federal and District settlement award totals about $18 million, or about $667,000 per year of Gates’s wrongful imprisonment.

District natives Brooks, who worked 17 years in homicide and is now a security officer for the Federal Reserve Bank, and Taylor, who retired after 20 years with the police department to provide security to entertainers, were represented in the civil damages claim by the D.C. Attorney General’s Office.

Gates was sentenced to life in prison in 1982 for the death of Catherine T. Schilling of Locust, N.J.

U.S. prosecutors in 2012 traced genetic evidence left at the Schilling scene to the true culprit, who died a year earlier. Prosecutors said he was a convicted offender and temporary janitor who had worked in the same building as Schilling. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not identified him by name, arguing that his privacy interests continued beyond his death.

At Gates’s criminal trial, a D.C. Superior Court jury was told that Gates had confessed to an informant, Gerald Max “Bear” Smith; that an FBI forensic expert had matched Gates’s hairs to ones found on the victim; and that Gates had committed a drunken purse-snatching weeks earlier in the same area.

Gates maintained his innocence, and his DNA exoneration decades later prompted the D.C. Public Defender Service and U.S. prosecutors to re-investigate and uncover wrongful convictions of four other District men who had served long sentences for rape or murder based on flawed FBI hair matches.

The FBI this spring acknowledged after its own review of more than 2,000 cases that its forensic hair examiners for more than two decades overstated testimony regarding the near-certainty of matches.

This month’s federal trial in the Gates case focused on the original police investigation of Gates, including detectives’ dealings with the informant, Smith, the suppression of warnings about the identity of the actual killer, and the reliability of Smith and his incentives to incriminate Gates.
Jurors deliberated less than seven hours before finding that Taylor, the lead detective, had violated Gates’s right to a fair trial by feeding Gates’s name and other details to the informant, and that both detectives had conspired and withheld information.