Judge won’t reinstate wrongful conviction verdict

DES MOINES – A federal judge has refused to reinstate a jury verdict that favored the city of Council Bluffs and two former police detectives who were sued in a wrongful conviction case.

Two Omaha, Neb., 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.

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. Jurors began deliberating on Dec. 6. Attorneys for Harrington and McGhee remained in Des Moines while waiting for a verdict.

The attorneys for the city and the two former officers were all from other communities and did not stay.

Those attorneys had indicated 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 say that was a mistake. They claimed the written jury verdict stands as the only clear indication of the jury’s decision and it should be reinstated to correct the judge’s error.

Pratt, in an order filed Wednesday, said federal rules require a jury verdict to be unanimous and he has no choice but to set it aside.

“The jury’s stated lack of unanimity means that it did not reach a verdict on any count,” he wrote. “Put another way, the individual jurors’ responses to the Court’s poll supersede the written verdict form.”

Council Bluffs Assistant City Attorney Michael Sciortino said the order could be appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We’re disappointed and weighing our options,” he said.

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.

If he concludes that the case should be tried again, he said he will set the date for a new trial as soon as possible.

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 a quarter-century in prison after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct.

Attorneys for Harrington and McGhee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.