Baltimore officials today approved a $9 million settlement — the largest in city history — to James “J.J.” Owens, who spent two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Owens’ case, and that of another man prosecuted for the same crime, was the subject of an investigation by ProPublica and The Atlantic last September that examined how defendants are pressured into controversial plea deals despite proof of their innocence.
Owens’ payout adds to Baltimore’s growing tab for decades of misconduct by its police force. In November, a jury awarded another wrongfully convicted Baltimore man, Sabein Burgess, $15 million. Like Owens, Burgess had sued, alleging civil rights violations by detectives.
Because Baltimore is self-insured, city taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for these payouts, which total $24 million in the last six months alone.
Now the city is girding itself for more costly lawsuits in the aftermath of a massive police corruption scandal that led to the conviction of eight officers earlier this year.
Owens’ saga began in 1988 when he was convicted of the murder of 24-year-old Colleen Williar based almost exclusively on the ever-changing story of James Thompson, his neighbor and former friend. Thompson became wrapped up in the case when he lied about finding the murder weapon in a foolish attempt to get a $1,000 police reward. When detectives questioned his story, Thompson pointed the finger at Owens, telling them multiple false versions of events about Williar’s rape and murder.
Detectives had pressured Thompson in the interrogation room until they had “enough to get James Owens,” as one of the detectives later put it. Owens’ lawsuit alleged that the detectives purposefully didn’t tell his attorneys about Thompson’s waffling, as is required by law.
Thompson was subsequently tried and convicted in Williar’s rape and murder, and both he and Owens were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But in 2006, semen found in the victim was tested, and the DNA didn’t match Owens or Thompson. Other key forensic evidence proved to be unrelated to the men or wrongly analyzed. Instead of letting the men go free, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office doubled down. After Owens was granted a new trial, the prosecutors refused to concede his innocence and instead tried to force him into a troubling deal known as an Alford plea. If he took it, Owens would be quickly released from prison and allowed to maintain his innocence on the record, but he’d still be a convicted murderer. And, significantly for cities with checkered histories, the deal would have prevented him from suing. For their part, prosecutors would keep a win on the books and avoid admitting a mistake.
Owens refused, and prosecutors left him languishing in prison for 16 months before admitting there wasn’t enough evidence to re-try him. On the day his new trial was set to begin in October 2008, the prosecutor dropped the charges, and Owens walked out fully exonerated. Thompson, however, took the Alford plea and was left with no recourse to sue for his own wrongful incarceration.
Owens filed his lawsuit in 2011, but it was dismissed from federal court and his lawyers dropped out of the case. In federal lawsuits like Owens’, it’s not enough to show that an innocent man was put in prison for a crime he didn’t commit; the defendant must also prove there was official misconduct that violated his constitutional rights. Winning on such civil rights claims is notoriously difficult.
In late 2012, lawyer Charles Curlett and the local Baltimore law firm Brown Goldstein Levy picked up the longshot case and appealed the dismissal.
“My view was it was a fight worth fighting, and if there was a way to navigate the litigation and achieve justice we would try and find it,” Curlett said.
Out of about 800 civil rights suits filed nationwide, only slightly more than half prevailed, according to Jeffrey Gutman, a law professor at George Washington University. Gutman examined the cases of 1,900 exonerees who had been convicted in a state court as recorded by National Registry of Exonerations from 1989 to about March 2017. In Maryland, the ratio was worse. Only six of the 24 people on the registry received payouts from the state, Gutman’s data showed. Owens is only the third Maryland exoneree from the national registry to receive compensation for a civil rights claims. Three others have been awarded money under the state statute, with payouts ranging from $300,000 to $1.4 million.
But during the last six years, views of law enforcement have changed drastically. In 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a local police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, set off nationwide protests and debates about law enforcement accountability and racism. Baltimore saw its own mass protests a year later when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Though prosecutions against the officers involved were unsuccessful, the city agreed to pay Gray’s family $6.4 million.
Owens won his appeal, and during settlement negotiations, which had stalled on and off for the last year, a series of decisions made it clear that jurors were fed up. First, last fall, a federal jury awarded Burgess $15 million, more than three quarters of a million dollars for each year he was wrongly behind bars.
Then, this year, six members of an elite police gun task force pleaded guilty and two others were convicted for systematically robbing citizens for years.
“It may not be as difficult now for plaintiffs like Owens to persuade federal jurors that the police did actually engage in misconduct,” said Michele Nethercott, head of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic.
Curlett agreed, noting that “the public view concerning the infallibility of law enforcement has changed, and juries across the country are becoming far more willing to recognize police misconduct.”
So as Owens’ case headed to a federal jury this month, Baltimore city officials had learned their lesson.
“That jury verdict certainly was one of the factors that I considered,” Dana Moore, Baltimore’s deputy city solicitor, said about settling with Owens.
“I think they correctly analyzed the risk to the city,” said Steven Mercer, the former public defender who represented by Owens and Thompson in their innocence claims. “The facts of each case really drive it and the facts for J.J. are quite compelling.”
The city noted in its summary of the case that the police department and the officers involved “dispute virtually all of the material facts alleged by Mr. Owens.” Moore also said the settlement wasn’t an admittance of wrongdoing.
Owens was hesitant to settle. After prosecutors refused to admit his innocence, he said he wanted a jury in open court to review the facts of his case and cast judgment on the officers who put him away.
“They kept coming back to me with these numbers, and I said ‘No, that’s not good enough,’” Owens said in an interview.
Owens’ steadfastness “paid a large dividend here,” Mercer said. “He was willing to go to trial and risk it all and only settled when there was a number that speaks loudly to his actual innocence and the wrongfulness of his conviction and incarceration.”
On average, exonerees nationwide have received $295,000 for each year spent in prison, Gutman said his data showed. Owens received nearly half a million for each of the more than 20 years he spent behind bars.
Still, nationwide experts see little deterrent effect in these types of payouts on police or prosecutorial misconduct or incompetence.
“I’m always astonished still how little impact they seem to have on police procedures and criminal investigations going forward,” said Sam Gross, law professor at University of Michigan and cofounder of the National Registry of Exonerations. City officials “approve payments and life goes on and the same things happen again year after year and decade after decade.”
In Baltimore, city officials are preparing for more lawsuits. The new city solicitor, Andre Davis, who took the position in September, has recognized the city needs to get ahead of them and is looking to be more proactive in identifying and settling cases earlier — particularly suits potentially arising out of the “verdicts and all the evidence that came out” the corruption scandal, Moore said. “Those trials do inform us of potential issues.”
“When [Davis] brought me in as deputy, he made it clear that cases that could be settled early should be and would be,” Moore said. “It’s something he absolutely wants to do.”
When the city approved the settlement on Wednesday morning, Owens was at work hanging gutters for his cousin’s company like he has been since he was released in 2008. He’s given his cousin two weeks’ notice and plans to build a house where he can work on restoring cars like he did before he went to prison. He told his cousin when he quit that he “wanted to sit back and relax.”
Still, Owens said, “I’d rather have the time back than the money.”