Judge narrows scope of wrongful conviction case

DES MOINES – A federal judge has significantly narrowed the scope of a lawsuit filed by two Omaha, Neb., men who claim the city of Council Bluffs and two former police detectives lied and hid evidence leading to their conviction on murder charges.

Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee are seeking compensation for 25 years spent in prison for what the courts have concluded was a wrongful conviction. They were released in 2003 after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct. They settled a case against Pottawattamie County, which agreed to pay $12 million to settle claims against two former prosecutors. The county did not admit wrongdoing.

Harrington and McGhee then sued the city and retired officers Daniel Larsen and Lyle Brown in 2005, claiming the officers coerced witnesses into lying and hid evidence from their attorneys during their 1978 trials. Harrington seeks more than $60 million, while McGhee is asking for more than $50 million.

The case went to trial on Nov. 1. 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. But when Judge Robert Pratt read the verdicts in court and 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.

Attorneys for the city and the officers filed several motions asking the judge to dismiss the case. Harrington and McGhee’s attorneys pushed the judge to set a new trial date.

In an April 30 ruling, Pratt threw out all the allegations except for one. He found that a jury at a second trial should be allowed to consider 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 allegations that the city failed to train or supervise the police officers. He also threw out claims that the officers intentionally or recklessly failed to investigate other suspects and that they intentionally failed to disclosure material that would have helped Harrington and McGhee.

Pratt also dismissed the assertion that the white officers were motivated by racial discrimination concluding there was not enough evidence presented at the first trial to race was a motivating factor. Harrington and McGhee are black.

Pratt also took the unusual move of allowing an immediate appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Each side has 10 days to ask the appeals court to consider their arguments. He said an immediate appeal will advance the lengthy litigation more quickly.

“It is noteworthy that this case has been actively litigated on the court’s docket for nearly a decade. Dozens upon dozens of orders have been issued, several interlocutory appeals have occurred, and a trial spanning 21 days (not including jury deliberations) was held,” he wrote.

The attorney for the city of Council Bluffs said an appeal is under consideration.

“The city and its police officers are encouraged by Judge Pratt’s ruling,” said Michael Sciortino. “We are weighing our options….”

McGhee’s attorney Steve Davis said he asked Pratt on Wednesday to reconsider the appeal order and immediately set the case for a new trial.

“I just think that’s the best way to get this thing decided and that after almost a decade of struggle I think that’s the most appropriate thing to do,” Davis said.

Harrington’s attorney did not immediately return messages.

If the 8th Circuit choses to accept an appeal the case could drag out for years. Two previous appeals to the court took two years each. One appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court adding another year to the process, Davis said.

“The reality is we’d all like to move on with our lives. We’d like to just do this thing and have it decided and be finished with it,” he said.