IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP):
Two black men wrongly convicted in the 1977 murder of a white Iowa police officer hope to prove something they couldn't during trials that sent them to prison for 25 years: that detectives framed them to solve a high-profile case.
During a civil trial that starts Wednesday in Des Moines, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee will argue that Council Bluffs police officers coerced witnesses into fabricating testimony against them in the killing of John Schweer.
Schweer was found dead while working as the night watchman at a car dealership. Harrington and McGhee, then teenagers from neighbouring Omaha, Nebraska, say detectives used threats against a group of young black car-theft suspects to trump up evidence targeting them because of their race and pressure to solve the retired captain's killing.
Despite little physical evidence, Harrington and McGhee were convicted at 1978 trials and sentenced to long prison terms. They were freed in 2003, after the Iowa Supreme Court found that prosecutors committed misconduct in concealing reports about another man seen near the crime scene with a shotgun. The key witnesses had also recanted their testimony, saying they were pressured into implicating the men.
After winning their freedom, they filed lawsuits against prosecutors and officers they blamed for forcing them to spend their adult lives in the Fort Madison prison. Their case reached the US Supreme Court in 2009 over the issue of whether suspects have the constitutional right not to be framed by prosecutors. Before justices ruled, Pottawatamie County agreed to pay US$12 million to settle claims against two former prosecutors while not admitting wrongdoing.
The settlement did not resolve claims against Council Bluffs and former detectives Dan Larsen and Lyle Brown.
Harrington and McGhee claim Larsen and Brown coerced the group of black car-theft suspects into fingering them in the death. Investigators took the star witness, a 16-year-old confessed liar with numerous aliases, to the crime scene, gave him details about the murder weapon, and had him repeatedly change his story until it was plausible, the lawsuit claims.
The witness, Kevin Hughes, was aggressively questioned in Schweer's death after he was pulled over several weeks later driving a vehicle stolen from a Nebraska dealership. He first implicated three other men who had alibis before eventually claiming Harrington pulled the trigger and McGhee drove the getaway car after they went to steal a car from the dealership Schweer was guarding. Hughes said later he lied to get reward money and avoid being charged himself. Other witnesses also recanted.
Jurors will be asked to decide at trial, scheduled to last through November 16, whether detectives, who were both white, and the city violated Harrington and McGhee's civil rights and, if so, how much they should receive in damages.
"We have waited for a very long time to have this trial and we look forward to having an opportunity to present our case," said Stephen Davis, an attorney for McGhee, now married and living in a Midwestern community he does not want to disclose.
Facing a possible verdict of millions, lawyers for the detectives and the city are making an aggressive defense. They plan to argue that Harrington and McGhee probably were the real killers - and that even if they weren't, detectives did nothing wrong in focusing on them as suspects under the circumstances.