Tuesday, January 31, 2017

One year in jail for a false conviction is worth $1 million

This case involves a horrible rape and murder on Long Island in 1984. The police arrested three men, including one who confessed in detail to the crime and implicated two of his friends. All three men were found guilty. They were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003. Two of them sued the police for damages after spending 18 years in jail. The jury awarded each of them $18 million, and the Court of Appeals affirms.

The case is Restivo v. Hesseman, decided on January 19. This case raises a plethora of issues, including the admissibility of expert testimony, hearsay and what constitutes proper jury instructions. One reason for the extensive analysis is that the civil case against the police original resulted in a defense verdict, but the district court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial after concluding that she had provided improper jury instructions. But let's focus on two of the issues, both relating to damages.

First, since the plaintiffs were wrongly convicted, under state law, they were provided with $2.2 million each. The New York Court of Claims Act Section 8-b allows for that award even without a showing of wrongdoing by the police. Since Police Officer Volpe was found liable for $36 million on plaintiffs' Section 1983 civil rights claims, he wants that amount reduced by $4.4 million, since plaintiffs had already recovered that amount under state law. The Court of Appeals (Pooler, Parker and Livingston [in dissent on the set-off issue]) rejects that argument, holding that the set-off argument undercuts the policies guiding Section 1983, intended to deter governmental officials from violating constitutional rights.

Volpe also argues that the jury award is too high. We call that a remittitur motion. The standard in determining whether a jury award in federal court is too high is whether it shocks the conscience. This is a lenient standard that gives the jury the benefit of the doubt in sizing up someone's pain and suffering. The Court of Appeals finds the jury award "is in line with other approved awards in wrongful conviction cases," citing precedents from the First Circuit, a district court in California and two appellate division rulings in New York. So this is the first time the Second Circuit has reached this holding. Here is some of the reasoning:

The evidence shows that, as can be expected, plaintiffs suffered grave harm from their 18 years of wrongful incarceration, including adverse psychiatric effects, loss of relationships with family members, and stigma due to the nature of the crimes they were convicted of—and resulting violence against them while incarcerated.

No comments: