A federal jury on Wednesday found that D.C. police framed an innocent man for a 1981 rape and murder, making the District liable for damages after he was imprisoned for 27 years.
Jurors found that two D.C. homicide detectives fabricated all or part of a confession purportedly made by the wrongly accused Donald E. Gates to a police informant. The detectives also withheld other evidence from Gates before he was convicted in the fatal attack on a 21-year-old Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park, jurors found.
Gates, now 64, was exonerated in the June 1981 killing and released from prison in 2009 after DNA testing.
Following Wednesday’s verdict, Gates’s attorneys said the detectives’ conduct warranted investigation into their handling of other cases. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District declined to comment on the verdict or whether the decision exposes the detectives to criminal investigation for perjury.
“It feels like the God of the King James Bible is real, and he answered my prayers,” Gates, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., said as he left the courtroom. “Justice is on the way to being fulfilled. . . . It’s one of the happiest days of my life.”
The verdict opens a new round of accountability for Gates’s wrongful conviction, which earlier triggered reviews by the U.S. attorney’s office, the Justice Department and the FBI. The jury’s decision means the District could be ordered to pay millions of dollars for misconduct by homicide detectives Ronald S. Taylor and Norman Brooks, now retired.
A third defendant — now-retired lieutenant John Harlow — was cleared by the jury.
Gates’s case was the first federal civil rights claim for damages involving a wrongful conviction in the District.
By law, jurors face no limit on how much money they can award Gates in compensatory damages. The dollar figure will be set as the civil trial continues before Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts of U.S. District Court.
The possibility of a sizable sum for Gates clearly weighed on District attorneys who addressed the jury.
“We know that given the verdict Mr. Gates is entitled to compensation, but we ask in reaching your decision that you continue to exercise common sense in determining damages that are rationally related,” said Joseph A. Gonzalez of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, which represented the detectives.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) is expected to review both the verdict and any damage award for appeal but did not immediately comment. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) also declined to comment.
Harlow, a Vietnam veteran who retired to serve as a bank executive in South Carolina, said he was pleased to be cleared.
“The Metropolitan Police Department is an outstanding police department known nationally and worldwide for its professionalism,” Harlow said. He added that his co-defendants “are the highest-quality, professional detectives that I have ever worked with, and if I were the victim of a homicide, those are the first two detectives I would want involved in my case.”
Brooks, who worked 17 years in homicide and is now a security officer for the Federal Reserve Bank, declined to comment through his attorneys, Robert A. DeBerardinis Jr. and Gonzalez. Taylor, who retired after 20 years with the police department to provide security to entertainers, left the courthouse Tuesday and was not present for the verdict. Both are District natives and Vietnam War veterans.
Gates received nearly $1.4 million from the U.S. government under a federal law that grants $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment to innocent individuals who waive claims against federal officials.
Roberts is separately weighing whether the D.C. government is liable for damages to be awarded to Gates under the city’s Unjust Imprisonment Act. Such awards are uncapped and set by a judge.
In the only previous trial under that law in the past 30 years, a D.C. Superior Court judge in February awarded $9.2 million, including $350,000 per year of incarceration, to Kirk L. Odom, a District man wrongfully imprisoned for more than 22 years for a 1981 rape and robbery. The city has appealed that award.
Gates was sentenced to life in prison in 1982 for the death of Catherine T. Schilling of Locust, N.J.
At Gates’s criminal trial, a D.C. Superior Court jury was told that Gates had confessed to an informant, Gerald Max “Bear” Smith; that an FBI forensic expert had matched Gates’s hairs to ones found on the victim; and that Gates had committed a drunken purse-snatching weeks earlier in the same area.
Gates maintained his innocence, and his DNA exoneration decades later prompted the D.C. Public Defender Service and U.S. prosecutors to re-investigate and uncover wrongful convictions of four other District men who had served long sentences for rape or murder based on flawed FBI hair matches.
The FBI this spring acknowledged after its own review of more than 2,000 cases that its forensic hair examiners for more than two decades overstated testimony regarding the near-certainty of matches.
U.S. prosecutors in 2012 traced genetic evidence left at the Schilling scene to the true culprit, who died a year earlier. Prosecutors said he was a convicted offender and temporary janitor who had worked in the same building as Schilling. But the U.S. attorney’s office has not identified him by name, arguing that his privacy interests continued beyond his death.
This month’s federal trial in the Gates case focused on the original police investigation of Gates, including detectives’ dealings with the informant, Smith, the suppression of warnings about the identity of the actual killer, and the reliability of Smith and his incentives to incriminate Gates.
Jurors deliberated less than seven hours before finding that Taylor, the lead detective, had violated Gates’s right to a fair trial by feeding Gates’s name and other details to the informant, and that both detectives had conspired and withheld information.
For example, jurors found Taylor ignored warnings by a junior homicide investigator, W. Louis Hennessy, now a Calvert County, Md., judge, that Smith was “treacherous” and totally unreliable.
Gates’s trial defense attorney, Hamilton “Phil” Fox, also testified that he never learned that Smith’s story prompted authorities to drop a charge that he stole $400 from police, which put him at risk of an extended prison term because of his own criminal record.
Peter Neufeld, one of Gates’s attorneys and a member of the Neufeld Scheck & Brustin law firm of New York, said the conduct of police — particularly Taylor, who was one of two detectives who oversaw the 40-member homicide unit — was troubling given that the jurors’ verdict Wednesday meant they had concluded that police lied in the past and at this month’s trial.
“The fact that he would so brazenly lie under oath as well as fabricate evidence and suppress exculpatory evidence will certainly warrant appropriate investigations,” Neufeld said.