The D.C. police department and four of its officers were ordered yesterday to pay nearly $100 million in damages to a woman whose son was slain while working as an informant on the Starbucks triple slaying investigation, the largest jury verdict ever returned against the D.C. government.
Terry Butera cried as the jury announced its decision, ending a two-week trial that exposed a host of police lapses. Her son, Eric, was robbed and beaten to death by three men after he tried to make an undercover drug buy at a Southwest row house for police. The suit accused police of failing to protect him.
Authorities later determined that there was no connection between the Starbucks case and the people in the row house.
"I feel very drained," said Terry Butera, 53, adding that she filed her suit to demand accountability as well as answers from the police. "I know that I did this for the love of my son. I hope that no other family will have to endure what I've endured. If that's the case, then this was a victory."
On Monday, the eight-member jury found the police department and the officers liable for damages. The panel then heard two days of testimony concerning damages. After three hours of deliberations yesterday, it returned to Senior U.S. District Judge June L. Green's courtroom with a final decision.
The jury ordered the District and the officers to pay $70.5 million in compensatory damages and $27.5 million in punitive damages. The previous largest judgment against the District was returned last year when a jury ordered the city to pay $24.2 million in a medical malpractice case. The District subsequently settled that suit for $8.25 million. The District can appeal this week's verdict as well as the size of the judgment, but even if the amount is scaled back, the result still could be costly.
In interviews afterward, jurors said they believed the police failed to take basic steps that would have prevented Butera's death. An expert witness for the plaintiff said that the operation was poorly planned and that police should have constantly monitored Butera the night he died.
The jury foreman, noting that the four officers were never disciplined, said the internal police investigation "was a joke." Another juror, Marion Wilson, said jurors quickly agreed that a message had to be sent to police with a large award. "You're dealing with somebody's life," she said. "There's no price tag you can put on that."
The Dec. 4, 1997, killing came as police were scrambling for leads in the slayings of three employees at a Starbucks coffee shop just north of Georgetown five months earlier. Acting on a tip from Butera, police arranged for him to make a drug buy at the row house so they could search the place for evidence related to the killings.
Butera was turned away at the door. As he walked away, he was accosted and robbed of the $80 in marked money police had given him. The officers were stationed on nearby blocks but were too far away to realize what had happened. Forty minutes after Butera was attacked, a neighborhood resident called 911, and patrol officers were the first to find his body.
"They signed Mr. Butera's death warrant when they dropped him off that night," Peter C. Grenier, an attorney for the family, told the jury.
The officers who worked with Butera that night were Lt. Brian McAllister, Sgt. Nicholas Breul and Detectives Anthony Brigidini and Anthony Patterson.
The four officers showed no reaction as yesterday's verdict was read and left the courthouse without comment. D.C. officials said they would review the verdict and explore legal options, including appeal. Sources familiar with the matter said the D.C. corporation counsel's office had offered Terry Butera $1.5 million during the trial to settle.
Eric Butera, 31, was a drug user who had been in and out of trouble since 1993, but his mother says he was trying to turn his life around. He told police that soon after the slayings, he had overheard people talking about the Starbucks case in a row house where he occasionally had purchased drugs. And Butera said he had seen weapons during his visits to the place.
Homicide detectives decided to have Butera return to the house, in the 1000 block of Delaware Avenue SW, to buy crack cocaine.
The plan was haphazardly designed and executed, according to expert witness James Bradley Jr. Bradley, a former D.C. police official, testified that it was doomed to failure and that the officers violated national standards and D.C. police rules.
Among other things, the team failed to alert the 1st Police District about its plans or put them in writing. Patrol officers had gone to the house the night before on a drug complaint, Bradley said, making it highly unlikely that anyone in the house would then sell drugs to Butera.
Although Brigidini was brought into the operation at the last minute, Bradley said, he was chosen to drop Butera off near the row house. Brigidini then waited in his unmarked car a block or so away, where he could not keep constant watch on Butera. Breul and Patterson waited in another car on a nearby street. The detectives explained they wanted to keep their distance to lessen any suspicion that Butera was aiding the police.
Throughout the trial, the police defended their conduct and said they believed Butera would be able to safely carry out the plans.
"Many things went horribly wrong," Assistant Corporation Counsel Thomas Koger told the jury yesterday. He said no amount of damages could reverse what happened and argued that punitive damages were not appropriate.
Three men were convicted in Butera's death. Carl Derek Cooper, who had no connection to Butera, is awaiting trial on federal murder charges in the Starbucks slayings.