The D.C. government will pay $16.65 million to settle a federal lawsuit after a jury found that D.C. police framed an innocent man who served 27 years in prison for a rape and murder.
The settlement in the civil rights case of Donald E. Gates, 64, will be the largest paid to an individual in city history, District officials said Thursday.
A nine-person jury on Wednesday found that two D.C. homicide detectives fabricated all or part of a confession purportedly made by Gates to a paid police informant and withheld other evidence in an attack on a 21-year-old Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park.
The award completes for now Gates’s ill-fated encounter with law enforcement in the brutal June 1981 killing: framed by police after a case of mistaken identity, convicted on flawed FBI forensic evidence, and exonerated and freed through DNA testing in 2009.
“I’m absolutely elated. The only thing I can do is thank the Lord,” said Gates, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn. “I’m hoping the message goes around the country: You can’t violate a black man or black woman’s civil rights, or no American citizen’s civil rights, anywhere. That’s what I hope.”
Gates’s attorneys said they will formally request reviews of detectives’ truthfulness on the stand this month and their handling of scores of District homicide investigations over their careers. They will ask D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips and the Justice Department for an audit of cases in which defendants Ronald S. Taylor and Norman Brooks, both now retired, served as lead detectives.
Jurors on the Gates trial found detectives lied about their handling of paid informants, witness interviews and photo identifications, among other procedures.
Gates’s attorneys also will ask Justice and the U.S. attorney “to investigate the appropriateness of criminal charges” against Taylor for perjury, said Peter Neufeld, one of Gates’s attorneys with Neufeld Scheck & Brustin of New York.
“There is no doubt at this trial that the jury determined that he lied to them,” Neufeld said, “and when you lie in a federal court under oath on a material matter, that’s perjury.”
Robert Marus, a spokesman for Racine’s office, declined to comment on the requests or on behalf of the detectives, whom the office represented.
In a statement, Racine said, “No amount of money can compensate Mr. Gates for his loss of freedom. Mr. Gates has shown extraordinary fortitude and dignity, and we wish him well as he proceeds with his life.”
Bill Miller, a spokesman for Phillips, declined to comment.
Gates’s case was the first federal civil rights claim for damages involving a wrongful conviction in the District. By law, jurors faced no limit on how much money they could award in compensatory damages in the case before Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts of U.S. District Court.
The prospect of a large award plainly weighed on District attorneys, who urged jurors to “exercise common sense” hours before the deal was announced.
The amount to be paid to Gates exceeds what the District paid for all claims in 2013, according to records released by the D.C. Office of Risk Management. From 2010 to 2014, the city paid $15 million to $33 million annually from its settlement fund.
As part of the settlement, the District agreed not to appeal or seek any offset for nearly $1.4 million that Gates previously received from the U.S. government for his wrongful imprisonment. Gates also dropped a claimfor damages against the District under the city’s Unjust Imprisonment Act.
The combined federal and District settlement to Gates totals about $18 million, or about $667,000 per year he was incarcerated.
Gates was sentenced to life in prison in 1982 for the death of Catherine T. Schilling of Locust, N.J.
U.S. prosecutors in 2012 traced genetic evidence left at the Schilling scene to the true culprit, a temporary janitor who worked in Schilling’s building the night of the crime. He died in 2011.
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.
After the purse-snatching, police showed Gates to the victim of a nearby rape, who erroneously identified him as her assailant. Gates was indicted, but charges were dropped when it turned out that he was in jail during the assault. But by that time, police had gone to prosecutors with Smith’s concocted story that Gates had confessed to killing Schilling.
Gates maintained his innocence, and his DNA exoneration decades later prompted the D.C. Public Defender Service and U.S. prosecutors to reinvestigate 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 in the spring acknowledged after a review that its forensic hair examiners overstated testimony regarding the near-certainty of matches for more than two decades.