Settlement keeps Gray family, city out of litigation 'hell,' attorney says

Gray family attorney says settlement keeps family, city out of litigation 'hell'

Attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy said Wednesday that the $6.4 million civil settlement he reached with city officials on behalf of Freddie Gray's family represents "civil justice" and saves the family and the city from costly litigation that would "keep the controversy" surrounding the case alive for years.

Murphy praised Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for reaching out to the family "in compassion, to seek healing, resolution and closure" sooner rather than later, because "justice delayed is justice denied."

"Because Mayor Rawlings-Blake had the foresight to take decisive action, we have accomplished [the settlement] without litigation, which is an extraordinary result," Murphy said. "Lengthy litigation and trial puts grieving families through hell, because it forces them to relive their tragedy over and over in ways large and small."

Murphy said litigation in federal court, where he intended to file a claim prior to entering negotiations with the city, could "easily have taken three years to resolve, and no grieving family wants to go through that."

Murphy made his comments at a news conference in his downtown offices, not long after the settlement was unanimously approved by the city Board of Estimates. He declined to discuss the specifics of the settlement.

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody in April. His death from those injuries sparked a week of protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by a period of rioting, looting and arson in the city. Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard to restore order, and Rawlings-Blake implemented a nightly, citywide curfew for a week.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest and death. Combined with the unrest, the charges catapulted the case into the international spotlight amid a burgeoning, national conversation about 21st Century policing, particularly in black communities like those in Baltimore.

The settlement's approval Wednesday comes one day before a hearing is scheduled in the criminal case against the six officers, during which Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams will consider whether the officers' trials should be moved out of Baltimore because of their high profile and the case's impact on potential city jurors.

Murphy stressed that the civil settlement is distinct from the criminal cases, because the standard for liability in civil cases is less than that in criminal cases.

"There were questions asked about whether or not this settlement is related in such a way that announcing it now would somehow prejudice the criminal case. Absolutely not," Murphy said. "All the parties involved understand that settlements are not relevant in any way to a criminal case. We have two different systems of law."

He said he believes a fair and impartial jury can and will be seated in Baltimore, and the proper time to determine that is during the jury selection process.

"Time after time in the modern era we have correctly drawn the balance between the impact of pretrial publicity and the ability to select a fair and impartial jury," he said. "So the proper procedure is to wait and see whether you can do that rather than to presume a characteristic about all of the people in the city of Baltimore.

Alexander Williams Jr., a retired U.S. District Court judge from Maryland who said he served as an "independent mediator" in the negotiations, also declined to discuss the specifics of the agreement but said he helped both sides make "risk assessments where they explored the pros, the cons, the expenses and drama of prosecuting a civil case in federal court."

"I know from personal experience that the outcome of a civil case, if you roll the dice and go to trial, is very unpredictable," Williams said. "This particular trial had all the trappings of unpredictability."

Williams said both sides were represented at the negotiating table by "able and highly competent counsel," and that both sides "negotiated in good faith with an effort to avoid a long, costly and contentious litigation process in favor of a voluntary solution to a very difficult, unique and challenging case."

Murphy would not comment on what information and evidence from the criminal cases he and city officials were privy to while negotiating the civil settlement.

He said Gray's family members "are not advocates for a particular position" in the criminal trials, and only want to see justice served.

"We represent an unusual family that has never pointed the finger at any particular officer, has never commented on the facts of the case and has never said to any of you what result they are seeking in this case except that they want justice," Murphy said. "They have told you what justice means to them, and that is a verdict in the criminal case that is based solely on the evidence that is presented in court and on the law as the jury is instructed. Whatever the outcome, they're going to live with that."

Murphy said the Gray family has "consistently opposed violence and always supported peace in the community" since Gray's death — and continue to ask for calm as the officers' criminal trials play out.

Murphy said the family was also less concerned about the amount of the settlement than the fairness of it. He declined to say what percentage of the settlement his law firm will take as payment for its representing the family in the negotiations.

In addition to the settlement, Murphy said Rawlings-Blake "pledged" to the family that a police body camera pilot program will launch in West Baltimore — where Gray was arrested — next month, a step forward in improving police relations in the community that Murphy said was important to the Gray family.

Murphy said he did not think the $6.4 million settlement — more than the combined total of all other city settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011 — would set a precedent or have a negative impact on the city in part because the body camera program will improve police and community relations and cut down on the number of claims filed.

He said the likelihood of the settlement setting a precedent would also be limited by the city's "notorious ability to keep settlements low," in part under a $400,000 cap on state claims.

There is no such cap on federal claims.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°