A federal appeals has upheld a $25 million jury award to man who served 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, determining that a federal jury and district judge did not make serious enough mistakes to warrant a new civil trial for the city of Chicago and a police detective.
On Oct. 7, a panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment of Chicago’s federal court, which found the city and Chicago Police Detective Jerome Bogucki liable for a conspiracy to strip due process rights and falsely prosecute Thaddeus Jimenez for the 1993 murder of Eric Morro.
Judge David F. Hamilton delivered the opinion of the court. He was joined in his ruling by Judges William J. Bauer and Frank H. Easterbrook.
The case stemmed from an investigation into the Jimenez’s criminal case conducted by the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions.
In 1993, Eric Morro was shot and killed by a boy who was accompanied by another young man, Victor Romo.
While Romo consistently identified the shooter as Juan Carlos Torres, Bogucki, who was investigating the case for the Chicago Police Department, moved to bring charges against Jimenez, then 15.
According to the court documents, Bogucki used “coercive tactics” to lead key witnesses to falsely identify Jimenez as Morro’s killer, ultimately leading to Jimenez’s conviction. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
That sentence was later overturned, and Jimenez was tried and convicted again in 1997. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
In 2006, an investigator with Northwestern contacted one of the key witnesses and, in talking with the man, recorded him saying Jimenez was not guilty of the murder.
The Northwestern investigators contacted other witnesses, and uncovered other evidence proving Jimenez’s innocence in the crime. Eventually, the case was reopened by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and Jimenez’s sentence was vacated and he was freed in 2009.
Jimenez then filed suit against the city and Bogucki for violating his rights and malicious prosecution.
The jury found in favor of Jimenez on all counts, and awarded him $25 million in damages.
The city and Bogucki asked for a new trial, but U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly denied that motion.
On appeal, the defendants argued that Kennelly erred when he let Jimenez’s attorneys challenge their peremptory jury strikes on the basis of race and gave what they believed to be insufficient jury instructions.
They also claimed the judge was wrong when he didn’t let Jimenez enter complete transcripts of his two criminal trials into evidence and allowed an expert witness presented by Jimenez to overstep the limits of his allowable testimony.
The federal appeals panel, however, disagreed on all counts.
They backed Kennelly’s decision to support a challenge from Jimenez’s legal team over the dismissal of two jurors simply because they were black, determining that the resulting composition of the jury did not harm the defendants’ case.
The 7th Circuit also found that the failure to enter the trial transcripts into evidence did not harm Jimenez’s case, as he was able to meet his burden of proof elsewhere.
“The criminal transcripts were relevant but not necessary evidence,” the federal appeals panel held.
Further, the panel backed the inclusion of testimony presented by “expert witness” Gregg McCrary, who testified about the appropriateness of police investigation tactics.
The defense argued that McCrary’s testimony “amounted to legal conclusions that were not admissible,” such as whether police had probable cause to investigate Jimenez for the murder, and that he testified as to the credibility of the witnesses whose statements prosecutors had used in the 1990s to convict Jimenez of murder.
The appeals panel, however, disagreed, noting both that the defendants lost this argument on the merits and procedural grounds, as they did not object to McCrary’s testimony at trial.
The federal appeals judges found that the defendants’ claims regarding McCrary’s testimony did not rise to the level of triggering a plain error review.
And further, they said, McCrary’s testimony did not stray into prohibited territory.
“McCrary’s testimony thus would have helped the jury conclude that the departures from reasonable police practices were so important, severe, and numerous that they supported an inference that Bogucki acted deliberately to violate Jimenez’s rights,” the justices wrote in their opinion. “Such use of McCrary’s testimony would not transform it into an impermissible legal opinion.”