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Families of six Anthony Sowell victims reach $1 million settlement with Cleveland over detective’s botched investigation

September 17, 2018

Families of six Anthony Sowell victims reach $1 million settlement with Cleveland over detective’s botched investigation

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The City of Cleveland has agreed to pay $1 million to the families of six women who fell victim to condemned serial-killer Anthony Sowell after a botched police investigation into a 2008 rape accusation allowed Sowell to walk out of jail with no charges.

The families of Nancy Cobbs, Telacia Fortson, Amelda Hunter, Le’Shanda Long, Diane Turner, and Janice Webb will divvy up the $1 million equally as part of an agreement to settle a lawsuit that was filed in 2010, dismissed by a county judge in 2014 and revived by an appeals court late last year.

The City of Cleveland, which will not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement, also agreed to reimburse the families’ lawyers for the cost of bringing the eight-year lawsuit.

Sowell was convicted in 2011 of raping and strangling 11 women and storing their bodies in and around in his home on Imperial Avenue, in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. He was sentenced to death. His case is currently in the appeals process.

The lawsuit was set to go to trial on Tuesday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Nancy Fuerst’s room.

The families were represented by lawyers from the law firms Friedman & Gilbert and Friedman, Domiano & Smith.

The settlement marks the latest major payout by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration to settle a lawsuit alleging misconduct by Cleveland police officers. Since 2004, the city has shelled out more than $21 million to settle such lawsuits. Another $17.7 million in pending judgments in two police misconduct cases from 1999 and 2012 is being challenged in appeals courts.

The case could also pave the way for crime victims to sue police officers who failed in their duty to protect the public from foreseeable harm, Terry Gilbert, one of the lawyers who worked on the case, said.

“This lawsuit wasn’t so much about money as it was about making sure that the system was held accountable,” Gilbert said.

The suit revolves a Dec. 8, 2008 report from Gladys Wade, who ran up to a Cleveland police car and told them that Sowell had just attacked and raped her. Patrol officers tracked down Sowell and arrested him as they investigated. They found footprints, broken glass and droplets of blood in the yard outside of his apartment, and photographed Wade’s injuries. 

The case was assigned to Georgia Hussein, who admitted in a sworn statement that she failed to review the evidence gathered by patrol officers before she took the case to assistant city prosecutor Lorraine Coyne. Hussein found Wade was not credible and told Coyne there was no evidence to corroborate her claims.

Hussein also knew that Sowell, who had served 15 years in prison on prior rape conviction, was a registered sex offender, but did not tell Coyne.

Coyne determined there was not enough evidence to file charges and released Sowell two days after his arrest.

Eleven months later, in October 2009, police discovered the remains of two women decomposing inside Sowell’s home. Investigators tore apart the interior walls and excavated the back yard looking for more bodies. They eventually unearthed 10 bodies and one skull, found in a bucket in the basement. 

The gruesome discovery lured international media to Cleveland, and brought scorn to the police department’s sex crimes unit.

Several family members of the victims filed lawsuits in 2010 and 2011 alleging that Hussein failed to conduct a thorough investigation into Wade’s complaint, and if she had, police could have charged Sowell, held him in custody and prevented him from carrying out several of the murders.

The suit also claimed that the department did not follow up on missing persons reports and, in some cases refused to take them from family members of the women.

City lawyers who represented the detectives and Coyne argued in a December 2014 motion for summary judgment that they are immune from liability for criminal acts that Sowell committed after his release. Fuerst agreed and granted judgment in favor of all of the detectives and Coyne.

The 8th District Court of Appeals partially reversed that decision in December 2017 and reinstated the claims against the city and Hussein. 

The Sowell case also marked the first black eye for the department’s sex crimes unit, which has been dogged by scandal in recent years.

Months after the macabre find on Imperial Avenue, Jackson convened a commission to review how the city could improve its handling of sex crimes and missing persons cases. The commission ultimately recommended two dozen changes, the majority of which were implemented.

A 2013 Plain Dealer Publishing Co. investigation found the department’s detectives had never sent thousands of rape kits in for DNA testing, and as recently as this year a top supervisor in the department was demoted and reassigned after more than 60 cases went uninvestigated.

The city razed Sowell’s house and plans to build a memorial to the women on the site have snagged.

Coyne is now a defense lawyer and candidate for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge this November.

To comment on this story, please visit Monday’s crime and courts comments page.

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