DES MOINES (AP) — Attorneys for the City of Council Bluffs and two former police detectives have asked a judge to reconsider declaring a mistrial in a lawsuit in a wrongful conviction case and find that a jury decided in their favor.
Two Omaha men sued the city and the retired officers in 2005, claiming the officers coerced witnesses into lying and hid evidence from their attorneys during their 1978 trials. Terry Harrington sought more than $60 million, while Curtis McGhee asked for more than $50 million.
The jury returned to the courtroom on Dec. 14 with a written verdict indicating jurors had unanimously found in favor of the city and the two former officers, Dan Larsen and Lyle Brown. Judge Robert Pratt read the verdicts in court and then asked each juror if he or she agreed with the verdict. Three women on the 12-member jury answered no.
The jurors' responses caught Pratt and the attorneys in the case by surprise. Pratt said he'd never had members of a jury say in court that the verdict returned was not their decision. After consulting privately with attorneys for Harrington and McGhee, Pratt declared a mistrial.
The attorneys for the city and the two former officers were not in court. Jurors had received the case on Dec. 6, and attorneys for Harrington and McGhee remained in Des Moines during the deliberations, which took more than a week. The attorneys for the city and the two former officers were all from other communities and did not stay.
Those attorneys had indicated that they would be available by telephone when the verdict was read. Court documents show the judge, his clerk and the attorneys who were present discussed whether to call the defense attorneys, but Pratt decided to move forward with declaring a mistrial and dismissing the jury.
The defense attorneys said that was a mistake, and they should have been called.
“Defense counsel was never contacted and was not afforded the opportunity to participate in the proceedings associated with the announcement of the jury verdict,” they wrote in a motion filed Friday.
“As it stands, the written jury verdict stands as the only clear indication of the jury's decision,” the motion said. “The written verdict should be reinstated to correct for the mistake, inadvertence, neglect, or because the proceeding was made unfair by the unwillingness of the court to call defense counsel as they were expecting would occur.”
Harrington's attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. McGhee's attorney, Steve Davis, said a response to the motions would be filed with the court soon. He declined to comment further.
Harrington and McGhee were sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of John Schweer, a retired police captain who was working as a security guard at a Council Bluffs car dealership. They were freed in 2003 after 25 years in prison when the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct.
Pratt gave all the attorneys permission to contact jurors to seek their insights on the trial and verdict. One attorney for each party may contact jurors but cannot coerce or pressure them into talking about the case.