CLEVELAND (AP) – David Ayers says he feared for his life during the nearly 12 years he spent in a prison for a murder that evidence showed he didn’t commit.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals voided Ayers’ conviction in 2010, and he was freed nearly a year later. A federal court jury in 2013 awarded him $13.2 million, a verdict upheld by the appeals court.
But Ayers hasn’t received a dime, and it’s unclear if he will.
Cleveland says it owes him nothing and the judgment was against the two homicide detectives who helped convict him, not the city. It further argues the judgment was erased in a bankruptcy filed by one of the detectives.
It appears Cleveland is planning a similar strategy over a $5.5 million verdict returned in September against a police officer who fatally shot Kenny Smith outside a nightclub in 2012. That verdict has been appealed, but the city in November hired a bankruptcy attorney for the officer.
Attorneys for Ayers’ and Smith’s families say they’re outraged by the practice. They say Ohio law requires municipalities to pay judgments for employees sued for acts committed during their employment.
Ruth Brown, one of Ayers’ Chicago-based attorneys, calls the strategy unprecedented and a “blatant dodge.”
“Nobody’s ever heard of anything like this,” Brown said.
Terry Gilbert, an attorney for Smith’s family, said the city is required to indemnify employees who have judgments filed against them.
“They’re desperate to find a way not to pay these verdicts and are engaging in legal shenanigans,” Gilbert said.
Cleveland said it “does not have a policy of avoiding the payment of its legal obligations, including judgments.” It said the judgments were against individual police officers, not the city. It said in a statement Friday it has no obligation to pay Ayers after being dismissed from his lawsuit.
While Cleveland has been hailed as a comeback city on the rise, it’s also under pressure to fix a troubled police department that has cost the city millions of dollars in judgments and settlements of lawsuits for abusive behavior by officers. Cleveland paid a total of $3 million in 2014 to the families of two unarmed people killed in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.
A jury convicted Ayers of aggravated murder in December 2000 in the slaying of a woman at an apartment complex for the elderly where he worked as a security guard. The conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the detectives and a jailhouse informant who said Ayers confessed.
Ayers refused to accept two plea deals offered by prosecutors. Instead, he went to trial and was sentenced to life. He was exonerated after it was learned hairs found on the victim’s body didn’t belong to him, detectives fed information to the jailhouse snitch and authorities failed to check surveillance camera footage that would have corroborated his story about his whereabouts.
Ayers, 58, said he feared for his life every day in prison.
“They put me away and took away 11 years of life for something I’m completely innocent of,” he said. “I think they should stop and pay me my money.”
Smith was shot once in the head by off-duty police officer Roger Jones. The officer told investigators he shot Smith when Smith reached for a handgun in a car. He said Smith got out of the car after he was shot and took several steps before collapsing.
A witness testified during the federal civil trial Smith was outside the car and was lowering himself to the ground when Jones shot him. A medical examiner testified Smith was immediately incapacitated and couldn’t have taken any steps.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty called Jones a hero after a grand jury cleared him of charges. After the $5.5 million jury verdict, McGinty said his office would re-examine the shooting.
A law professor at Case Western Reserve University said he’s puzzled by Cleveland’s efforts not to pay judgments. Professor Jonathan Entin said the bankruptcy strategy might prove successful but is an argument cities shouldn’t make.
He said Ayers deserves to be compensated for the years he wrongfully spent in prison because of “egregious conduct” by police.
“This basically says to everybody who lives in the city, who works in the city and who comes to the city that we don’t care about what happens to you,” Entin said. “If we treat you really badly, too bad. It’s your tough luck.”
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