Claiming "ambiguity" in the jury verdict clearing three Prince George's County police officers of wrongdoing in a civil trial here, lawyers for the alleged victims have asked the trial judge to define the "outer bounds" of permissible police conduct in Maryland.
Lawyers making the unusual request in federal court contend that public interest in "this lengthy and important case" requires such clarification.
The form of the jury's verdict, they said, hid whether the panel felt that members of the so-called police "death squad" in 1967 improperly "solicited crimes." The officers were accused of instructing informers to recruit participants for a series of convenience store holdups and breakins where waiting detectives killed, wounded or arrested several suspects.
Under the verdict procedure, the lawyers argued, the jury could have found that police did wrongfully solicit crimes but that their conduct was not "outrageous" enough to justify a verdict against them.
The lawyers' action--called a motion for declaratory judgment--comes less than two weeks after the six-member civil jury absolved the three police officials, including present Assistant Chief Joseph D. Vasco Jr., of illegally instigating the crimes.
"The jury's bald verdict, . . . absent declaratory relief, might appear to sanction the creation of violent crime as a legitimate law enforcement technique beyond the reach of constitutional restriction," argued the lawyers.
Attorneys for the police brand the motion "frivolous," contending its real purpose is to enable the four lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the incidents to collect huge legal fees from the Prince George's County government.
Lawyers representing plaintiffs in civil damage suits, such as the "death squad" case, normally are not paid fees by their clients but rely on receiving a portion--usually one-third--of any award given by the jury. Plaintiffs in the "death squad" case were families of the two slain suspects, plus two of the suspects arrested in the incidents. They sought $9 million in damages.
The jury, however, refused to award any damages. This left the four plaintiffs' attorneys with nothing after months of trial work and preparation, plus about $15,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for witness fees, depositions and other court costs, according to one of the attorneys.
In civil rights damage cases, litigants can file a motion for declaratory judgment, as the plaintiffs did in the "death squad" case. And if they prevail, the judge can order the losing side to pay all or part of the legal fees.
Plaintiffs' lawyers in the "death squad" case would not discuss details of their finances, but one of them noted that Barnet D. Skolnik, a noted Washington trial lawyer who was the plaintiffs' chief counsel, put in some 2,000 "billable hours" on the case in the last eight months. If Skolnik was reimbursed (at a minimum of $100 an hour), he would receive $200,000, according to other attorneys uninvolved in the case.
Michael O. Connaughton, deputy Prince George's County attorney, estimated the four plaintiffs' lawyers could claim "way over several hundred thousand dollars."
The biggest portion of the county's costs from the trial is in legal fees to two private attorneys, Edward P. Camus and James P. Salmon, hired to represent Vasco and the other police defendants. Neither attorney would discuss details of his fees, but Salmon said earlier published reports suggesting that each received about $90,000 during the six-month period of the trial "is a little high . . . . I haven't put my final bill together."
Also, the county paid an estimated $8,800 during the trial for a $49-a-day room at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel near the federal courthouse where police and their lawyers kept case files and met for conferences. In addition, the county paid for large portions of the trial transcript. A court source estimated the entire transcript would cost $80,000.
Throughout the mammoth, half-year-long trial, police denied instigating any of the crimes, claiming instead that the informers came to them with tips of planned holdups and breakins and that detectives then routinely staked out the targeted stores.
Attorneys for the alleged victims contend that it is not clear how the jury came to its decision in favor of the police. In their motion for declaratory judgment, they say there was "ambiguity" in the verdict, leaving "unclear the true meaning of the jury's decision."
This was a reference to the fact that under trial Judge Herbert F. Murray's instructions, the jurors had to make a double determination before they could return a possible verdict against the police: first, that the police did "solicit" the crimes and, second, that "such conduct . . . was so outrageous that it shocks the conscience and is offensive to our society's sense of justice," the legal standard for determining denial of due process.
When the verdict was returned May 13, the jury simply checked off a series of paper forms saying it "found for" the police and refused to award money damages to the plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs' lawyers say it was possible the jury found that the police had "solicited" the crimes, for example, but did not feel that such conduct was "outrageous"--a split finding that would tend to condone what plaintiffs say was unlawful police conduct. Several jurors on the case refused to talk to reporters about how they reached their verdict.
Specifically, the lawyers asked Murray to rule that the legal position of Prince George's County in the case was, at best, inconsistent with his charge to the jury. The county's defense was that the three officers did not solicit any crimes, but even if they did, their conduct would have been constitutional.
County attorneys argued that the suspects who were killed or arrested were mostly petty thieves with a "predisposition" to crime that barred them from any constitutional argument of entrapment. To solicit such persons would have been "improper," as police attorney Camus put it, but it would not rise to the level of unconstitutionality.
C. Christopher Brown, another of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said the motion for declaratory judgment is not designed to reverse the verdict of the jury.
"We just want Murray to issue a judgment saying what a cop can do and cannot do," he said. " . . . We are concerned that some members of the public will see this verdict as a vindication of the right to revert to the old ways . . . for police to be able to create violent crimes." Judge Murray is not expected to rule for some weeks.