Following the Money Sometimes Misses the Point
September 24, 2015 by Sonya Pfeiffer
My partners, David Rudolf and Chris Fialko, recently settled a civil rights suit that resulted in an impressive financial outcome for their client. But beneath the flashy lights of money is a story that is rarely discussed in the aftermath of settlement: the heartache, the uncertainty and ultimately, the massive relief at the end of a long and painful journey.
We are almost numb to this narrative: our civil rights plaintiff served 11 years in prison for a crime – murder – that he did not commit. Incarcerated after several codefendants were coerced into falsely confessing to the crime and falsely implicating our client as well, there was also suppression and destruction of exculpatory evidence.
The devastatingly familiar narrative is true. Our client was sent to prison in October, 2000 after false confessions, a fabricated identification and the disappearance of exculpatory evidence piled up against him and he entered a guilty plea to avoid life imprisonment or the death penalty. After a two-week trial by a three judge panel of the North Carolina Innocence Commission in September 2011, he was declared innocent. Last month, more than two years after filing suit in federal court, our client won significant compensation through a settlement among the parties.
More than two years after filing suit. What happens over that course of time? How does a person who has spent a decade in prison manage to get his life on track while he waits and waits and waits for what he hopes is a positive outcome? How does he grapple with knowing that “the system” wronged him so deeply and at times so brazenly, yet be forced to wait for lawyers to file, depose, respond, mediate and strategize?
The facts in the case were meticulously detailed in the complaint. Had a jury been empaneled, would they have been outraged that the elected Sheriff coerced a confession out of a 16-year-old boy with a history of mental illness? Would the jurors have been appalled had they learned that that same Sheriff is now serving federal time for extortion? How would a group of twelve react to learning that critical portions of an exculpatory videotape were erased? Or that DNA that would have exonerated our client was never gathered – despite a court order to do so? Those facts never made their way to a jury, but they ultimately made their way to county commissioners and insurance companies who decided that keeping the case out of the courtroom was a better outcome than having the facts aired publicly.
Our client managed to make it through to settlement without compromising any dignity. He fought fear and uncertainty as the case slowly navigated its way to resolution. Through the help of a program that lends non-recourse funds to plaintiffs based on the strength of their cases, our client secured a loan to help him with living expenses so he did not have to settle cheap, which was the defendants’ goal. He also has a supportive family. But the toll that two years of waiting took was significant. The sense of loss from being wrongfully convicted – loss of dignity, trust and self-worth – was then compounded by a sense of despair that those who wronged him in the first place were fighting tooth and nail to make him go away for as little money as possible. And while the result has put our client in a healthy financial position, the pain along the way is the real story. It is not flashy. It is not a gripping headline. But it is the reality of our system that people who are wronged have an arduous, gut-wrenching, seemingly interminable road to resolution.