David Ayers says he feared for his life during the nearly 12 years he spent in an Ohio prison for a murder that evidence showed he didn’t commit.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals voided Ayers’ conviction in 2010, and he was freed nearly a year later. A federal court jury in 2013 awarded Ayers $13.2 million, a verdict upheld by the appeals court.
But Ayers hasn’t received a dime of that money and it’s not clear when — or if — he will. Cleveland says it owes him nothing, and that the judgment was against the two homicide detectives who helped convict him __ not the city. Cleveland further argues that the judgment was erased in a bankruptcy filed by one of the detectives.
It appears that Cleveland is planning a similar strategy over a $5.5 million verdict returned in September against a Cleveland police officer who fatally shot 20-year-old Kenny Smith outside a downtown nightclub in 2012. That verdict has been appealed, but the city in November hired a bankruptcy attorney for the officer.
Attorneys for Ayers and Smith’s family say they’re outraged by the practice. They say Ohio law requires municipalities to pay judgments for employees sued for acts committed during their employment.
Ruth Brown, one of Ayers’ Chicago-based attorneys, calls the strategy unprecedented and a “blatant dodge.”
“Nobody’s ever heard of anything like this,” Brown said.
Terry Gilbert, an attorney for Smith’s family, said the city is required to indemnify employees who have judgments filed against them.
“They’re desperate to find a way not to pay these verdicts and are engaging in legal shenanigans,” Gilbert said.
Cleveland refused to answer emailed questions about the two cases. It issued a statement earlier this week saying: “The city does not have a policy of avoiding the payment of its legal obligations, including judgments. Neither of these judgments are against the city of Cleveland, but are against individual police officers.”
While Cleveland has been hailed as a comeback city on the rise, it’s also under pressure to fix a troubled police department that has cost the city millions of dollars in judgments and settlements of lawsuits for abusive behavior by police. Cleveland paid a total of $3 million in 2014 to the families of two unarmed suspects killed in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.
A jury convicted Ayers of aggravated murder in December 2000 for the slaying of a woman at an apartment complex for the elderly where he worked as a security guard. The conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the detectives and a jailhouse informant who said Ayers confessed to the killing.
Ayers refused to accept two plea deals offered by prosecutors, including one of 3 to 10 years. Instead, he went to trial and was sentenced to life. Ayers was exonerated after it was learned that hairs found on the victim’s body didn’t belong to him, that detectives fed information to the jailhouse snitch that he otherwise wouldn’t have known and that authorities failed to check surveillance camera footage that would have corroborated Ayers’ story about his whereabouts before the slaying.
Ayers, 58, of Cleveland, said he feared for his life every day in prison.
“They put me away and took away 11 years of life for something I’m completely innocent of,” Ayers said. “I think they should stop and pay me my money.”
Kenny Smith was shot once in the head by off duty police officer Roger Jones. The officer said he was inside a nightclub when he heard gunshots outside and went to check out what was happening. He told investigators he shot Smith when Smith reached for a handgun on the center console of a car. Jones said Smith got out of the car after he was shot and took several steps before collapsing.
A witness testified during the federal civil trial that Smith was outside the car and was lowering himself to the ground when Jones shot him. A medical examiner testified that Smith was immediately incapacitated and couldn’t have taken any steps.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty called Jones a hero after a grand jury cleared him of charges. After the $5.5 million jury verdict, McGinty said his office would re-examine the shooting.
A law professor at Case Western Reserve University said he’s puzzled by Cleveland’s efforts not to pay judgments. Jonathan Entin said the bankruptcy strategy might prove successful, but it’s an argument cities shouldn’t make. Ayers deserves to be compensated for the years he wrongfully spent in prison because of “egregious conduct” by police, he said.
“This basically says to everybody who lives in the city, who works in the city and who comes to the city that we don’t care about what happens to you,” Entin said. “If we treat you really badly, too bad. It’s your tough luck.”
Source: The AP