Baltimore poised to pay $9M to man who spent 20 years in prison on wrongful murder conviction

Baltimore is poised to pay $9 million to 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 would be the largest settlement from the city in a case involving alleged police misconduct, officials said, and it represents a rare outcome for people who prove they were wrongfully convicted.

City lawyers who are recommending the settlement were mindful of a federal jury’s decision last year to award a far greater amount — $15 million — to a man who filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department and two police detectives.

“It’s wise to pay attention to those verdicts and to those numbers,” said Baltimore’s deputy city solicitor, Dana Moore.

The proposed $9 million settlement with James Owens is scheduled to come before the city’s spending panel Wednesday. If the five-member Board of Estimates approves the proposal, Owens would receive seven-figure payments over several years.

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 exculpatory information in his case.

A summary of the litigation prepared by the city’s Law Department says the police department and the officers involved in the case “dispute virtually all of the material facts alleged by Mr. Owens.”

But city lawyers have chosen to settle because a federal appeals court ruled that Owens’ claims could go in front of a jury. A trial was scheduled in federal court for May.

The law department said that the settlement was in the best interest of the city “given the uncertainty of litigation, including the unpredictability of how a jury might evaluate the evidence in this case, the fact that there is no statutory cap on the potential damages (and attorney’s fees) that could be awarded in this case if Mr. Owens prevails at trial, the current legal environment surrounding the Baltimore City Police Department.”

The police department and the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office referred questions to the city law department. Owens’ lawyers declined to comment until the settlement is formally approved.

Moore said officials decided to settle the case after reviewing the facts, the law and the appeals court decision.

“I don’t think it’s an apology,” Moore said. “It’s a decision that gives certainty to the city and it gives certainty to Mr. Owens and his counsel and the citizens of Baltimore. ...

“It’s a big number and I hope it’s a number that he sees as one of the tools that is available to him to construct the life that he wants,” she added.

The money will come from the city’s regular budget.

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, one of the five members of the Board of Estimates, said she supports awarding the money to Owens.

“There is strong evidence pointing to the innocence of Mr. James Owens for a murder which he was wrongly convicted of in 1988,” Pratt said in an email.

Thompson changed his story about the crime several times, even after Owens’ trial had started, according to court records. Detectives continued to interrogate Thompson until he settled on a story that involved his watching Owens rape and murder Williar.

Williar’s relatives could not be reached for comment.

A jury convicted Owens of murder and burglary and he became the first person in Maryland sentenced to life without parole.

But Owens’ lawyers have alleged that police didn’t disclose that Thompson had continued to offer different accounts of the crime before arriving at the one that placed him at the scene. Forensic evidence used in the case has also since been called into question.

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 DNA evidence that cleared Owens did not implicate Thompson either. He accepted a deal where he entered a so-called Alford plea to a second-degree murder charge — maintaining his innocence but acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict him. That allowed Thompson, now 58, to go free but left the guilty verdict on his record and bars him from bringing a lawsuit.

The difference between the ways the two men were treated has drawn national attention to the case.

The settlement would be one of the largest approved in a case alleging wrongdoing by city police officers, topping the $6.4 million awarded to the family of Freddie Gray in 2015.

Baltimore officials are continuing to fight two other multi-million dollar cases in court. The city’s lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to review the case of a man a jury awarded $2.3 million after he alleged he had been wrongfully charged in the so-called Charles Village Rapist investigation. And last year, a jury awarded $15 million to Sabein Burgess, another man wrongfully convicted of murder — an award the city also is appealing.

Michele Nethercott, an attorney who runs the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore, said it’s still uncommon for wrongfully convicted people to receive significant payouts. Nethercott said the cases take a long time to resolve, dissuading lawyers from taking them on, and the police officers and prosecutors involved in bungled investigations are protected by the law.

The outcome in the Burgess case might change the equation, as could the recent Gun Trace Task Force case, which revealed widespread misconduct in a city police unit. But, Nethercott said, “getting any compensation for a wrongful conviction remains a very daunting task.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Owens’ conviction based on the city’s settlement document. The Sun regrets the error.

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