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Baltimore OKs $9M settlement to man wrongly convicted of murder, sparking clash between council president, FOP

Baltimore’s spending panel approved a $9 million settlement on Wednesday with a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 20 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared his name a decade ago.

The amount agreed to be paid to James Owens is the largest settlement from the city in a case involving alleged police misconduct, officials said.

“Anyone who spends 21 years in jail unfairly deserves compensation,” said Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who controls a majority of votes on the Board of Estimates, which voted unanimously for the payment.

At a news conference in downtown Baltimore, lawyers representing Owens passed out a statement that said the settlement “brings to a close a long and painful chapter in Mr. Owens’ life.”

Owens did not appear at the news conference and, through his lawyers, declined to comment, except to say that “no amount of money can give me back the time that I lost.”

The settlement sparked harsh words between City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the city’s police union. In approving the funds, Young railed against the amount of money taxpayers are paying out over police lawsuits, and he suggested that the union should pick up some of the costs.

“I’m not happy about it,” Young said.

He cited the $6.4 million settlement in the death of Freddie Gray and argued that police are costing the city too much money.

“I’m not saying [Owens] shouldn’t get some money, but I do think FOP should be party to this settlement,” Young said. “That money should come out of their funds. I’m tired of all these funds coming out of the taxpayers of Baltimore City. Nine million dollars could go a long way toward rec centers, towards jobs for our youth. I’m tired of it.”

The Baltimore police union responded to Young’s comments Wednesday, criticizing him as someone who “does not support the work done by the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department.”

“While we agree with President Young that $9M is a lot of money, we have never been able to fathom why the City Board of Estimates continues to pay these exorbitant settlements,” the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 wrote on Twitter.

Owens was charged in the 1987 robbery, rape and murder of Colleen Williar, a 24-year-old phone company employee and college student, in her Southeast Baltimore home.

According to court records, Owens came under suspicion when a neighbor of Williar's, James Thompson, told police he found a knife outside Williar’s apartment and retrieved it on behalf of Owens, a friend.

Police found no physical evidence to link Owens to the crime but charged him on the basis of Thompson’s statement. Owens, now 57, was convicted of murder in 1988 and had spent 21 years in custody before he was freed in 2008.

He sued the city three years later, alleging that investigators pressured a key witness and that police and prosecutors intentionally suppressed information that might have helped him defend himself.

Lawyers representing Owens alleged that the Baltimore Police Department homicide detectives who investigated the murder failed to disclose such so-called exculpatory evidence. The suit named as defendants the city, the police department and the State’s Attorney’s Office. It also named individual police officers Gary Dunnigan, Jay Landsman and Thomas Pellegrini and prosecutor Marvin Brave.

Thompson changed his story about the crime several times, and detectives continued to interrogate Thompson until he settled on a story that involved him watching Owens rape and murder Williar, according to Owens’ lawyers.

A sample of semen saved from the case was tested for DNA in 2006, winning Owens a new trial. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against him.

“The American system of justice only works when police reveal all the evidence, even evidence that contradicts their belief regarding who committed a crime,” said Andrew D. Freeman, one of Owens’ lawyers. “This settlement should remind all law enforcement officers of the consequences of failing to turn over exculpatory information.”

City lawyers said that even though they were settling the case “the Baltimore City Police Department and the detectives who have been sued in this action dispute virtually all of the material facts alleged by Mr. Owens.”

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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