(CN) – A Boston detective owes $14 million to a man wrongly convicted of murder, a federal judge ruled, approving the largest jury award ever for this violation in the District of Massachusetts, which grants $1 million for every year Shawn Drumgold spent behind bars.
Drumgold was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of murdering 12-year-old Tiffany Moore in a 1988 gang shooting.
The prosecution relied significantly upon eyewitness from a homeless man, Ricky Evans, who saw Drumgold two blocks from the scene of the crime, carrying a gun on the night of the murder. This testimony directly contradicted the testimony of the Rev. Rodney Sadberry, who said Drumgold was buying a sandwich with him at the time of the murder.
In 2003, after Drumgold served 14 years of his sentence, Evans, along with several other witnesses, recanted his testimony and admitted that he lied in Drumgold’s criminal trial. At a new trial, Evans testified that the detectives on the case provided him with cash, meals and housing at a hotel for eight months, and promised to help him with his own pending criminal cases. Evans told the jury that the detectives “fed” him facts about the crime, such as descriptions of Drumgold’s clothes and car.
“I was young, I was on the street. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep the next night. I didn’t know where I was going to get my next meal from,” Evans said. “You got two detectives backing you up for everything you do, of course I lied.”
After the prosecutor dropped all criminal charges against him, Drumgold filed a civil suit against the detectives, the police commissioner and the city of Boston for violating his state and federal rights by withholding exculpatory evidence. He argued that the jury’s ignorance of Evans’ relationship with the police contributed to his wrongful conviction.
The defendants argued that disclosure of the material assistance given to Evans did not affect the fairness of the trial.
A jury found in favor of the defendants on all claims, except it found that defendant Detective Callahan had violated Drumgold’s civil rights by giving Evans “substantial amounts of money.” The cash given to Evans totaled $20.
Though this jury was unable to reach a verdict on the appropriate damages award Callahan should pay Drumgold, a second jury ordered the detective to pay $14 million. It found that Callahan “intentionally or recklessly withheld evidence from prosecutors.”
U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner rejected Callahan’s subsequent motion for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial and a reduction in damages.
“It is axiomatic that for someone who is homeless and vulnerable, the potential of food and housing provides a very real incentive to lie,” she wrote. “The jury may reasonably have concluded that this was a classic ‘promises, reward, or inducement’ for a government witness.”
Callahan contended that the prosecutor assigned to handling Evans’ personal criminal charges knew of the hotel arraignments, and therefore he had fulfilled his duty to turn over exculpatory evidence to the district attorney’s office.
But Gertner said “it would defy common sense to expect a prosecutor down the hall to recognize exculpatory evidence for a case to which he is not assigned and then ensure that it is received by the appropriate prosecutor at the appropriate time to insure that it would be disclosed it to defense counsel in a timely fashion.”
“A reasonably competent officer would not assume that he had met his obligation by providing information to some other prosecutor,” the decision states. “To the extent that Callahan truly misunderstood his obligation, that mistake was not reasonable.”
Evan’s police file never referred to his hotel stay, and the evidence suggested that the prosecutor assigned to the case was unaware of the cash, meals and housing provided to Evans. “The jury may reasonably have drawn the inference that this was not merely a lack of communication and an inadvertent omission, but rather an intentional effort on the part of Callahan to hide the information,” Gertner wrote.
Callahan had also claimed that the prosecutor assigned to Drumgold’s case should share liability since he learned about the hotel arraignments after the conviction. Another detective on the case testified that he had a conversation with the assigned prosecutor about the hotel room. But that same detective later said that the district attorney’s office never received a bill from the hotel.
“In this context – with conflicting testimony about which reasonable minds could disagree – I will not overturn the jury’s verdict,” Gertner concluded.
Though “an award of $1 million per year is generous,” and pushes the limits of what is conscionable, the judge cited the 1st Circuit precedent that laments the difficulty in “placing a dollar value on the emotional pain incident to wrongful incarceration, the dreary sameness of life behind bars for years on end, and the loss of freedom, relationships, and hope.”
Drumgold also took home $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees and $51,632 in costs.