Friday, October 21, 2011

Paying for bad cops: Crowe family settles civil rights lawsuit for $7.25 million

...[M]other Cheryl Crowe...told KPBS she believes the Escondido police doesn't regret the coercive interrogations, nor the arrests and jailing of their son and his two high school friends, Josh Treadway and Aaron Houser.
--Voice of San Diego

"They did it with malice. They knew what they were doing," she said. "We were ready to go to trial to prove that. And they never admitted they did anything wrong."

ESCONDIDO: Crowe family settles civil rights lawsuit for $7.25 million
October 21, 2011

Nearly 14 years after Stephanie Crowe was stabbed to death in her Escondido bedroom, her family agreed to a $7.25 million settlement with the cities of Escondido and Oceanside for what one appeals court called "psychologically abusive" interrogations of the slain child's then-teenage brother.

"There is a degree of vindication," said brother Michael Crowe, now 28 and a first-time expectant father.

The settlement, announced Friday morning, draws to a close a federal civil rights lawsuit related to a slaying investigation that grabbed national headlines ---- even spawning a made-for-TV movie ---- and split community opinion about just who killed the 12-year-old honors student in her Escondido home in January 1998.

"We are done, just done," Stephanie's mother, Cheryl Crowe, said Friday. "No amount of money will make them see their errors."

An Escondido police spokesman as well as an Escondido deputy city attorney handling the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The municipalities are the final defendants to reach a settlement with the Crowe family, which has long maintained it was victimized ---- and Michael mentally brutalized ---- by police so eager to make an arrest that they wrongly zeroed in on three innocent teenagers instead of a more likely suspect: a mentally ill transient who bizarrely approached their neighbors moments before the child was attacked.

With just 10 days until the trial started, the Crowes agreed to a settlement to be split with their longtime attorney Milt Silverman and then among family members. After years of fighting, fatigue took its toll, as did the family's excitement at a baby on the way.

"We wanted to go to trial so bad," Cheryl Crowe said. "The case is the strongest it has ever been, but we don't want to go anymore. We are just tired and we don't trust what could happen. We don't want to spend another 10 years of our lives with that garbage. ... I'm turning my thoughts to the new baby."

Crowe family attorney Silverman said insurer AIG will pay the settlement; no taxpayer money will be used.

"My clients are happy," Silverman said. "They thanked the courts for giving them justice."

Even though the settlement means the civil rights portion of the case is over, the matter of just who killed Stephanie remains very much alive in the criminal courts. The mentally ill transient convicted of sneaking into the home and killing the child was just this year granted a new trial. The courts are still weighing legal matters in that criminal case.

Stephanie's brother, Michael Crowe, was 14 when police suspected he and his high school freshman friends killed his popular younger sister, stabbing her to death in her bed. After hours of interrogations, the three teens made damning statements; one of them even made an outright confession. But in the years after the slaying, judges in both criminal and civil courts came to determine that the statements had been coerced by police.

The teens' lengthy interrogations were at the center of the civil rights suit the family brought against Escondido police and others, including an Oceanside police detective called in to assist during the questioning.

A federal trial judge in San Diego dismissed the bulk of the civil rights suit in 2004. But six years later, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit, finding that Escondido police violated the civil rights of Crowe and his friends during "hours of grueling, psychologically abusive interrogations."

The federal appeals court found that Crowe and his friends endured "psychological torture" during police questioning. The result was coerced confessions that led to murder charges against "innocent teenagers for a crime they did not commit," the appeals court found.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Escondido's request that it review the appeals court findings.

The settlements with a number of defendants followed.

Cheryl Crowe credited Silverman's tenacity in keeping alive a difficult and complex case that he had taken on contingency more than a decade ago.

"Without Milt, we would never have had a voice inside the court," she said. "He was ready to retire when he took this case. But he kept a promise to my mom that he would see this case to the end."

Cheryl Crowe's mother, Judith Kennedy, died in 2001. It was she who found her granddaughter's lifeless body.

Although Escondido police originally suspected Michael Crowe and his teenage buddies, DNA evidence linked a mentally ill transient to the child's slaying. The case was moved from Escondido police to a cold case detective with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's homicide unit.

In 2004, the transient, Richard Tuite, now 42, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for sneaking into the Crowe home and killing the girl while her family slept.

But earlier this year, a federal appeals court overturned Tuite's conviction, finding that the jury should have heard more about the backgrounds of dueling crime scene analysts who offered opposing theories of the slaying.

State prosecutors have asked the federal courts to reconsider the decision to overturn Tuite's conviction. As of Friday, with the courts still weighing the criminal case, Tuite ---- who has schizophrenia ---- remained in custody at the California Medical Facility, a psychiatric institution for the state's male prisoners.

Cheryl Crowe said it scares her that Tuite's conviction was overturned, and she worries about public safety once he is released.

"The thought of Richard Tuite hurting another child is very troubling to me," she said.

Michael Crowe said he agreed to the settlement even though Escondido police do not accept liability for wrongdoing.

"There is not any price that would make what they did right," he said when reached at his home in Oregon. "But in the end, the price was just fair enough for us to accept. ... It's unfortunate, but we came to realize that the police would never admit they were wrong. And that is unfortunate for everyone who lives in that city."

Cheryl Crowe, who has also relocated to Oregon, said one settlement item was non-negotiable: The amount of the settlement had to be made public.

"We refused to settle if it remained confidential," Cheryl Crowe said. "We said, 'No, that is not acceptable.' They know they did something wrong."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

U.S. widens inquiry into abuse at L.A. County jails

U.S. widens inquiry into abuse at L.A. County jails
Sheriff's Department seeks to curtail the extent of subpoenas, which seek data on workers since 2009.
By Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard
Los Angeles Times
October 15, 2011

Federal authorities have widened their misconduct investigation into the Los Angeles County jail system, demanding internal Sheriff's Department documents detailing deputies' use of force on inmates over several years, as well as other records.

Sheriff's officials balked at the size and scope of the subpoenas when they were served several weeks ago and are negotiating with federal prosecutors to reduce the number of documents they must produce.

A source familiar with the demand said it sought the names of everyone who has worked in the jails since 2009, even janitors, and whether they have been disciplined for misconduct. Federal prosecutors also sought employees' Social Security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses, phone numbers and personal email addresses.

The records demand is the first sign that federal authorities are not simply looking into several individual cases of jail brutality and other misconduct but are taking a broader look at potential wrongdoing by deputies going back years.

"I was caught completely flabbergasted," Sheriff Lee Baca said of the growing federal scrutiny of his jail system, the nation's largest. "It's like your best friend digs up your favorite rose bed."

In an interview with The Times, Baca said the subpoenaed records were so voluminous that even federal investigators "would have had difficulty ferreting through it all." Nevertheless, Baca said, the county has begun collecting the records.

Federal officials declined to comment about the subpoenas or discuss details of the investigation.

Rebecca Lonergan, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor, said the demand for the records suggests that investigators are looking for witnesses who would be willing to cooperate as they explore whether there might be a pattern and practice of deputy misconduct in the jails.

"The question becomes whether it rises to a supervisory level," said Lonergan, who handled police misconduct cases while supervising the U.S. attorney's public corruption section in Los Angeles. "If so, it may not be just the individual deputies who are culpable. It may be supervisors all the way up to higher-ups in the Sheriff's Department."

The subpoenas come amid renewed scrutiny over the county's jail system, which has been plagued over the last decade by inmate riots, killings, the formation of a gang-like deputies clique, early release of inmates, antiquated facilities and huge legal settlements. Over the last three years, the county has paid $8.4 million to resolve claims of excessive force and failure to care for inmates, a spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

Last month, The Times reported that the FBI is investigating allegations of inmate beatings and other deputy misconduct. Among the claims under review are those made by an American Civil Liberties Union jail monitor who said she witnessed deputies knock an inmate unconscious and beat him for two minutes at the Twin Towers jail...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Crowe case plaintiff Houser settles lawsuit

Crowe case plaintiff Houser settles lawsuit
J. Harry Jones
Oct. 12, 2011

DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO — Aaron Houser, one of three teenagers wrongfully accused of murdering Stephanie Crowe in 1998, has settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money against four Escondido police officers, one Oceanside police officer and a psychologist.

Michael Crowe, the only remaining plaintiff, has not settled, and a trial in federal court is tentatively to begin Oct. 31, although a request to continue the proceeding into November has been made.

Joshua Treadway, the third teen who was arrested, opted out of the lawsuit years ago.

The notice of settlement was filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego on Tuesday.

How much money Houser will receive as a result of the settlement is confidential, lawyers for Houser, the officers, and the city of Escondido say. The San Diego Union-Tribune plans to challenge that assertion with the argument that settlements regarding public employees, represented by attorneys working for city-authorized insurance companies, should be a matter of public record.

Twelve-year old Stephanie Crowe was found stabbed to death in her Escondido home on Jan. 21, 1998. Her older brother Michael, 14 at the time, and his friends, Houser and Treadway, were arrested soon afterward. Following hours of interrogations by Escondido police and an Oceanside police officer called in to help, authorities said that Crowe and Treadway confessed. The courts later said the confessions were coerced.

About a year after the killing, on the eve of the boys’ trial, all charges against them were dropped. DNA testing showed that Stephanie’s blood was on the sweatshirt of a transient who had been in her neighborhood the night of the slaying, acting oddly and banging on doors.

That man, Richard Tuite, was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

A lawsuit brought by all three boys claiming violation of rights against self-incrimination, false arrest and prosecution was brought soon after, but U.S. District Judge John Rhoades threw out the bulk of the case in 2004 and 2005. Rhoades ruled that while the interrogations were harsh, they could not be considered coerced because they were never used against the youths at a criminal trial.

In 2010, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S., Circuit Court of Appeals revived key portions of the lawsuit, setting the stage for the settlement and trial to come.

The Crowe case has had far reaching implications. District Attorney Paul Pfingst was defeated in 2002 while seeking a third term in office. His challenger, Bonnie Dumanis, aired television ads leading up to the election that featured a picture of Stephanie Crowe as an example of why a new county district attorney was needed.

The case was even made into a 2002 TV move called “The Interrogation of Michael Crowe,” which continues to be shown all these years later.