Putting the Screws To Police Brutality

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2003

Julius LaRosa Booker was allegedly smoking crack inside a stolen van with a prostitute. Robert Zimmerman and Michael Andre Simms were charged with stealing a refrigerator from a house. Anthony Casella was convicted of helping to pull off an armed robbery of a pizza shop. Timothy S. Traynor was arrested on a warrant charging him with breaking and entering.

All of them sued the Prince George's County Police Department, alleging that officers released police dogs on them without justification. Some said officers beat them for no reason. And in all the cases -- with the plaintiffs represented by attorney Terrell N. Roberts III -- the county wound up paying five- and six-figure settlements or jury awards.

In Booker's case, the exact figure was sealed as part of a settlement, but people familiar with the agreement said the county paid tens of thousands of dollars to end the lawsuit. The settlement figure in Casella's suit was in the low six figures, people familiar with the case said. A jury ordered the county to pay Zimmerman and Simms more than $3 million, though a judge later reduced the figure to $248,000. A federal jury awarded Traynor $16,500.

In the past five years, Roberts has emerged as the most prominent civil attorney on behalf of alleged victims of Prince George's County police misconduct. With his associate, Christopher A. Griffiths, Roberts has racked up about $6.5 million in civil jury awards and settlements on behalf of clients who sued Prince George's police for brutality and other types of misconduct.

His successes have made him a focus of both praise and criticism.

"If more attorneys stood up like Terry Roberts, we'd have less police brutality," said Redmond Barnes, a member of the People's Coalition for Police Accountability. Traynor, one of his clients, said Roberts "is the thin blue line protecting people in Prince George's from police brutality."

But a defendant in one of Roberts's cases, Officer Edward S. Finn, said he and other officers worry that at a critical moment, they may hesitate to use force to protect themselves for fear of being sued.

"He gets to sit back and Monday-morning quarterback and pass judgment on these situations," Finn said. "We hate him. He makes a mockery of the police department every chance he gets."

Finn was one of seven officers sued by the family of a man who died in police custody in September 2000, in a lawsuit handled by Roberts. The Maryland medical examiner's office found that Elmer Clayton Newman Jr. had two broken neck bones and ruled the death a homicide. Police said Newman inflicted the injuries on himself in a holding cell.

The county settled the lawsuit for a six-figure sum.

"I was livid," Finn said. "I wanted it to go to trial. I did not want Roberts to get a . . . dime. He's motivated by money. How he can live with himself is beyond me."

Roberts, 54, who has a modest office in Riverdale, said he didn't begin his career intending to specialize in police misconduct lawsuits.

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