COUNCIL BLUFFS — A federal judge has refused to reinstate a jury verdict that favored the City of Council Bluffs and two former police detectives who had been sued in a wrongful-conviction case.
“We're disappointed and weighing our options,” said Mike Sciortino, Council Bluffs assistant city attorney.
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.
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. The men were freed in 2003 after the Iowa Supreme Court found that the prosecutors committed misconduct.
The jury in the men's civil suit 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.
However there was confusion during the deliberations, including the jury being sent back to deliberate further after initially saying they'd reached a verdict that wasn't unanimous.
Court documents indicate that at one point the foreman for the jury indicated he was confused by the term “unanimous.”
Judge Robert Pratt read the verdict in court and then asked each juror whether he or she agreed with the verdict. Three women on the 12-member jury answered no.
Without the required unanimous agreement, Pratt declared a mistrial.
The attorneys for the city and the two former officers were not in court when the verdict was read, and they later asked Pratt to reinstate the verdict.
Pratt, in an order filed Wednesday, said that federal rules require a jury verdict to be unanimous and that he had no choice but to set it aside.
The attorneys for the city and the officers also asked Pratt to enter a judgment in their favor, arguing in a 78-page brief that evidence was insufficient to prove the allegations made by Harrington and McGhee.
Pratt said he needed more time to consider that motion given its length and the extensive trial record covering 21 days. The plaintiffs made a motion to set a new trial date, which Pratt denied pending decisions on unresolved motions.
Sciortino said the city, its attorneys and attorneys for the two officers will discuss their options, including checking whether they can appeal the decision by Pratt not to reinstate the verdict in their favor.
Pratt said that if, in the end, he concludes that the men's lawsuit should be tried again, he would set the date for a new trial as soon as possible.
Sciortino said it's too early to tell whether there will be another trial.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.