DES MOINES (AP) — Two Omaha men suing the City of Council Bluffs and two former police detectives for wrongful conviction must try their case again jointly after a judge denied their requests for separate trials.
Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee last month asked a federal judge to allow them to pursue their lawsuits separately.
The two black men are seeking compensation for 25 years spent in prison for what the courts have concluded was a wrongful conviction for the 1977 shooting death of John Schweer, a white retired police captain who was working as a security guard for a Council Bluffs car dealership.
They were released in 2003 after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors had committed misconduct by hiding evidence that could have helped Harrington and McGhee in their 1978 trials. Pottawattamie County agreed to pay them $12 million in 2010 to settle claims against two former prosecutors.
Harrington and McGhee also sued the city and retired officers Daniel Larsen and Lyle Brown, saying the officers coerced witnesses into making up testimony, among other misconduct. Harrington sought more than $60 million while McGhee was asking for more than $50 million.
After the mistrial, Harrington and McGhee pushed for separate trials.
Last week, Judge Robert Pratt rejected their arguments and ordered a new joint trial to begin Oct. 15 in Des Moines.
“There is no reason to doubt the jury's ability to evaluate the evidence and follow all instructions that the court issues in this case,” Pratt said.
McGhee's attorney, Steve Davis of Chicago, said in court documents that the two men were never close and were only thrown together by investigators and prosecutors eager to solve Schweer's murder.
Davis said too many plaintiffs, too many facts and too many lawyers make a joint trial unworkable.
“Each plaintiff deserves to prosecute his trial to the fullest of his ability without any spillover from the other's case impacting counsel's strategic decisions,” J. Douglas McCalla, an attorney for Harrington, wrote in court documents.
The attorneys for both men did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Pratt said in an April ruling that the jury at the second trial may consider only whether Larsen and Brown deliberately manufactured, coerced or fabricated false evidence against Harrington and McGhee and knowingly used it against them at their trials.
He threw out all other allegations, including racial discrimination, that the city failed to train or supervise the officers, and claims that the officers failed to investigate other suspects.
The ruling released the City of Council Bluffs from direct liability, but the city could be responsible for paying if a jury returns a verdict against the officers and a judge finds the acts of the officers were “a willful and wanton act or omission,” according to Iowa law.
The city continues to pay legal fees for Larsen and Brown.
David Baker, the attorney for the retired officers, declined to comment Monday.
“My understanding is that the Council Bluffs police officers intend to continue to vigorously defend the case,” said Michael Sciortino, an attorney for the city.
The first trial began in Des Moines on Nov. 1 but ended in a mistrial Dec. 14 when three women on the jury told Pratt they didn't agree with the verdict the foreman announced in court, which found in favor of the city and the officers. Verdicts in such cases must be unanimous, so it was never considered a valid result and Pratt ordered a retrial.
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