By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
A civil jury in Prince George's County awarded nearly $6.4 million yesterday to a man who spent more than eight months in jail after he was interrogated for over 38 hours by homicide detectives, who then charged him with murdering his wife based solely on statements he allegedly made during the marathon interviews.
The award to Keith Longtin after the two-week trial is believed to be the largest ever made by a jury in a civil case involving abuse by Prince George's police.
Longtin, now 50, was released from jail only after DNA evidence found in his slain wife was matched with a serial rapist. The sexual offender was later convicted of the murder.
The Circuit Court jury awarded $5.2 million in compensatory damages to Longtin. It also leveled punitive damages of nearly $1.2 million against four county homicide detectives -- one of whom is retired -- who, the jury found, violated Longtin's civil rights.
The county indemnifies police officers for their actions in the line of duty and pays civil judgments and settlements. In the fiscal year that ended in June, Prince George's paid more than $4.6 million in jury verdicts and settlements involving alleged abuse by county police.
Longtin, who now lives in Anne Arundel County, broke down and wept as the verdict was announced.
The jury found that county detectives engaged in a pattern of violating the rights of defendants, said Cary J. Hansel, one of Longtin's attorneys. "We hope this signals the end of lengthy, coercive police interrogations in Prince George's County," said Timothy F. Maloney, another Longtin attorney.
Prince George's spokesman John Erzen said County Executive Jack B. Johnson will be briefed by county attorneys on the verdict and will decide whether to appeal.
Longtin was jailed after Prince George's homicide detectives charged him with murdering his estranged wife, Donna Zinetti, 36. Her body was found on the morning of Oct. 4, 1999, in a wooded area near her Laurel apartment complex. She had been stabbed and slashed 13 times in the face, neck and chest.
Police had no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence against Longtin.
Detectives charged him based on statements he allegedly made during interrogations that occurred over a span of more than 38 hours. According to detectives' logs, Longtin slept 55 minutes during that time.
Detectives took turns questioning Longtin, who, aside from brief bathroom breaks, remained inside a small interrogation room. Eventually, detectives alleged, Longtin said he picked up a knife and chased Zinetti after arguing with her. Longtin denied he ever said that.
In a charging document, county homicide Detective Ronald Herndon wrote that Longtin admitted his involvement in Zinetti's slaying.
The investigator who took Longtin's alleged statement, now-retired sergeant Glen Clark, testified in the civil trial that after saying he chased his wife, Longtin denied killing her. After Longtin was charged with the murder, Herndon and Clark, in separate pretrial hearings, recounted Longtin's alleged statement but omitted his denial, according to testimony in the civil trial.
At the urging of a county police sex crimes detective, authorities tested the DNA found inside Zinetti's body. It matched the genetic material of a serial rapist.
That man, Nathaniel D. Oesby, 30, was convicted in 2001 of Zinetti's murder and sentenced to two terms of life in prison.
Longtin's experience was chronicled in a series of articles in The Washington Post in 2001 examining how county homicide detectives coerced false confessions from innocent people after unlawfully subjecting them to marathon interrogations, depriving them of sleep and refusing to let them speak to their lawyers.
County homicide detectives coerced false confessions from at least three other men in addition to Longtin, the articles said.
Besides Herndon and Clark, two other homicide detectives, both still active, were named in Longtin's lawsuit: Troy Harding and Robert J. Frankenfield.
Harding and Frankenfield have found themselves in controversies before.
A year ago, Maryland's Court of Special Appeals threw out the jury convictions of a man on charges of voluntary manslaughter and a handgun violation because it ruled that Frankenfield violated his rights. The appellate court found that Frankenfield, in a videotaped interview, questioned the suspect after the man had asked for an attorney five times. Under the law, police are supposed to stop questioning a suspect when he asks for a lawyer.
In 2003, Frankenfield was part of a team of detectives that charged a woman and two teenage girls from Arizona with torturing and killing a Mitchellville woman in 2002. The woman and the teenagers were incarcerated for three weeks before a county prosecutor determined that they were innocent and had them freed.
Harding was part of a team of detectives that obtained one of the other false confessions reported by The Post. Harding has said he felt good about his conduct in the cases, saying neither man confessed to him.