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City pays $6 million for two wrongful murder convictions

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POSTED October 15, 2013 9:37 p.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The city of Council Bluffs will pay $6 million to settle a lawsuit with two Omaha, Neb., men who sued after the courts concluded they were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 25 years for the shooting death of a retired police captain.

Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee will be paid $2.3 million immediately and the remainder in six annual payments of $528,571. A final payment of $728,571 will be made in July 2020.

The settlement agreement resolves the lawsuit naming the Council Bluffs and retired city police detectives Daniel Larsen and Lyle Brown, who were alleged to have coerced witnesses into making up testimony among other misconduct.

The lawsuit was scheduled for retrial Tuesday before a federal jury in Des Moines. The first trial ended in mistrial last December when jurors could not agree on the verdict.

In that trial Harrington sought more than $60 million and McGhee was asking for more than $50 million.

The two black men were seeking compensation for years spent in prison for what the courts have concluded was a wrongful conviction in the 1977 shooting death of John Schweer, a white retired police captain who was working as a security guard for Council Bluffs car dealerships.

The agreement signed Friday splits the money evenly between the two men in exchange for dismissal of the lawsuit filed in November 2003 in U.S. District Court in Des Moines. It specifies all parties will pay their own attorney fees and costs. The agreement specifies no admission of fault, liability or wrongdoing by any party and bars anyone from making public statements suggesting otherwise.

The agreement also requires all involved and their attorneys to refrain from any disparagement or criticism regarding the lawsuit claims or the settlement. Parties involved in the case have agreed to make no public statement for at least 60 days other than to say the matter has been satisfactorily resolved. After that, statements may be made "in good faith about matters relating to the claims or settlement as long as they do not engage in disparagement and criticism."

Details of the settlement, initially sealed Friday by Magistrate Judge Thomas Shields, were ordered unsealed Tuesday by Judge Robert Pratt after The Associated Press filed a freedom of information request under Iowa's open records law. Pratt said in the order there was no compelling reason to justify sealing the settlement. He pointed out that Iowa law requires such settlements to be disclosed.

"Under these circumstances, the court finds that the public interest in open access to the court and its records outweighs any potential interest of the parties in keeping the settlement under seal," he wrote.

Harrington and McGhee were released in 2003 after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct by hiding evidence that could have helped them in their 1978 trials. Pottawattamie County agreed to pay them $12 million in 2010 to settle claims against two former prosecutors.

Pratt, who presided over the first trial, had narrowed the issues that jurors in a new trial would have considered.

In an April ruling he said the only issue to survive to a new trial was whether Larsen and Brown deliberately manufactured, coerced or fabricated false evidence against Harrington and McGhee and knowingly used it against them at their murder 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 have been held responsible for paying if a jury had returned a verdict against the officers and a judge had found the acts of the officers were "a willful and wanton act or omission," according to Iowa law.

The city was continuing to pay legal fees for Larsen and Brown.

The city will pay the money out of its insurance fund, money collected under a tax called a tort levy that city residents pay to offset the cost of litigation and legal bills.

 

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