East Cleveland proposes $405,000 settlement for men who filed wrongful incarceration lawsuits

October 5, 2018

East Cleveland proposes $405,000 settlement for men who filed wrongful incarceration lawsuits

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The city of East Cleveland proposed a $405,000 settlement for three men who each spent two decades in prison for murder convictions that were later overturned.

The trio’s lawyers, however, said the city never told them about the proposal before the cash-strapped suburb’s law director filed it on a federal court docket on Thursday.

(You can read the filings here or at the bottom of this story.)

Attorney Elizabeth Wang, who represents Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover, and Brett Murner, who represents Eugene Johnson, said they first heard about the proposed settlement that day, when Law Director Willa Hemmons filed a notice and a copy of a proposed City Council resolution. They said they had not received any offer to settle their lawsuits, which are set for a trial to begin Nov. 13.

The proposed settlement is a small fraction of the $4.5 million the trio agreed to in a settlement with Cuyahoga County earlier this year. City Council President Joie Graham said the resolution must be passed by a committee and the full council. She said it will likely be heard at a committee meeting later this month.

The settlement offer is the latest bizarre twist in the lawsuits.

The trio was convicted in the 1995 in the death of Clifton Hudson Jr. They were released from prison in 2015 when a judge granted new trials based on new information.

They sued the city, county, detectives and prosecutors who handled the case following their release. The men argued that several officers withheld information that could have helped their defense and said the police coerced witnesses into saying the trio was responsible for Hudson’s death.

The proposed resolution says East Cleveland’s law department believes its exposure at trial could be less than a tenth of the amount the county agreed to pay in its settlement. It says the city would pay each man $13,500 each year for a decade.

Wang and Murner said the way East Cleveland is handling the proposed settlement is backward compared to settlements they have brokered with other local governments. In other cases, attorneys for both sides work out a tentative settlement, which is then sent for approval with whoever has authority, be it a mayor or a city council, Wang said.

“I don’t think there’s anything for us to do unless they make some kind of offer,” Wang said. “This is not an offer, as far as I can tell.”

Both said they would evaluate the settlement proposal. Wang said, however, that all three men want their day in court and that it’s unfair to characterize the East Cleveland defendants as being a small player.

“It was the police officers who withheld clearly exculpatory evidence from our clients,” Wang said. She added that jury verdicts in similar cases across the country “far exceed what they’re proposing here.”

Graham said Thursday that she was not aware that Hemmons did not speak to the plaintiffs’ attorneys before the proposed resolution was drafted.

She was sympathetic to Wheatt, Glover and Johnson, saying “how can you compensate somebody for 20 years of their life?” Graham added that the city should not be held liable for anything that happened.

A large jury verdict would be a hard hit to the city, which is in a fiscal emergency, Graham said.

The lawsuits have proved problematic for East Cleveland.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin sanctioned the city in November 2017 after Hemmons suggested the three men depose a former police sergeant who was in a coma at the time, among other unavailable witnesses.

Gwin also ruled that the city defendants forfeited a key legal defense, qualified immunity, by not raising it in certain court filings. Local governments frequently raise qualified immunity – which can shield officials from liability if the conduct at issue was not in violation of a person’s legal rights or could be considered a reasonable mistake – as a defense from police misconduct lawsuits.

A federal appeals court upheld Gwin’s ruling. Hemmons asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

Messages left for Hemmons, Mayor Brandon King and resolution sponsor Councilman Nathaniel Martin were not returned.

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