After Carroll County prosecutors dropped first-degree murder charges against Godfrey G. Miller III earlier this month, lawyers for the Westminster man, who had spent nine months in jail, confronted the city's mayor and council at their meeting Monday night and demanded $200,000 in compensation for their client.
Miller's attorney, Clarke F. Ahlers of Columbia, said the city's flawed police investigation violated Miller's civil rights by failing to reveal evidence that could have cleared his client months ago.
In a letter to Westminster Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff on Oct. 6, Ahlers alleged that Miller, a mentally disabled 20-year-old, was railroaded into a confession by Westminster police and other investigators. The letter suggested a settlement agreement of nearly $900,000. But last night, Ahlers said that he would accept $200,000 as compensation.
Miller was arrested on first-degree murder charges in January, 12 days after the body of Richard Paul Atkins Jr. was found fatally beaten in his room in the 100 block of E. Main St. on Dec. 29. Miller was jailed until a hearing Oct. 4 in Carroll County Circuit Court, where State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes dropped the murder charges.
The case unraveled with the discovery of evidence that Westminster police had allegedly withheld until last month, including reports from correctional officers, prepared in January, of alleged conversations that implicated a convicted jail inmate and her then-boyfriend in the killing. Authorities also revealed an unsigned letter found tucked in a library book this summer that gives an account of Atkins' killing.
At another hearing last month, Westminster police testified that they did not find physical evidence connecting Miller to Atkins. A murder weapon was never found, authorities said.
The homicide division of the Maryland State Police is conducting a new criminal investigation into Atkins' death.
In the Oct. 6 letter, Ahlers demanded that the city accept responsibility for his client's wrongful imprisonment at the Carroll County Detention Center and quickly settle with Miller to reimburse him for the time spent in jail and for job training to get the young man back on his feet.
Ahlers said Monday night that repeated attempts to meet privately with city officials had failed, forcing him to address the council directly at the end of their meeting.
"For 269 days, Godfrey Miller was incarcerated in jail here in Westminster for a crime he didn't commit, in part because of the misconduct of city employees," Ahlers said. "I wanted help for this child because I couldn't place him. I couldn't find a bed for him to sleep in. All I wanted was to talk privately with someone. ... You were able to talk a retarded kid into a confession, but you won't silence me."
City Council President Damian L. Halstad refused to engage Ahlers, although the normally unflappable Halstad did raise his voice as he addressed Ahlers and told him that pending litigation - or the implication of a lawsuit - was a matter not to be discussed publicly but through City Attorney John B. Walsh Jr.
Ahlers sent the city a letter Oct. 7 declaring a notice of claim for injury, considered a prerequisite for a lawsuit, Halstad said.
"The common practice of the city is to refer these matters to the city attorney," Walsh told the council. "My advice is not to discuss these matters pending a criminal investigation of a murder that is ongoing. ... Mr. Ahlers is an attorney and I am not going to allow an attorney to speak directly with my client."
Halstad allowed Ahlers to talk for about 10 minutes, with the conversation getting heated toward the end.
"You wrote us a threatening letter, Mr. Ahlers," Halstad said, referring to another letter that Ahlers had written to Walsh. The letter stated, in part: "The decision of the mayor, council and you as their attorney to ignore my client Godfrey Miller will continue to result in substantial consequences - political, economic and otherwise."
"If you're inviting a fight, I'll give you a fight," Ahlers responded to Halstad.
When Halstad asked what Ahlers wanted from the council that night, Ahlers replied: "There should be a check written for $200,000 for this child."
No action was taken Monday night, but Ahlers and his colleague, James Elliott, said there might be no choice now but to file a lawsuit.
"After last night it looks as though our options are limited," Elliott said yesterday. "As opposed to opening up a dialogue and trying to meet with us, they close the doors and shut down and hope everything will go away. Unfortunately for them, that's not going to be the case this time."