DES MOINES, Iowa – A judge declared a mistrial Friday in the case of two black men who sought millions of dollars from Council Bluffs and two police officers after being wrongly convicted for the 1977 murder of a retired white police officer.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt declared a mistrial after determining a jury couldn't reach a unanimous decision.
Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, both of Omaha, Neb., filed the lawsuit in 2005, saying they deserved payment for spending 25 years in prison. Harrington sought more than $60 million and McGhee more than $50 million.
They alleged that retired officers Dan Larsen and Lyle Brown coerced witnesses into lying and hid evidence from their attorneys in the 1978 trials.
Both men were sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of John Schweer, a retired police captain who was working as a security guard at a Council Bluffs car dealership. Harrington and McGhee were freed in 2003 after 25 years in prison after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct.
After a week of deliberation, jurors signaled they had verdicts early Friday afternoon. But once in the courtroom, three women on the 12-person jury said they didn't agree with the verdict read in court.
It caught Pratt and the attorneys in the case by surprise, with the judge saying he's never had that happen before. After a private consultation, Pratt declared a mistrial.
"The jury verdicts lack the unanimity required by the law," he said.
Pratt then addressed the jurors, who sat through a trial that started Nov. 1 spanned nearly a month and a half.
"I can tell by looking at you, you are exhausted," the judge said in dismissing the jury. "You have given everything any reasonable country can require of its citizens," he said.
Pratt told jurors that sometimes a mistrial is the best a jury can do.
Harrington's lead attorney, Gerry Spence declined to comment afterward. In court, though, he expressed regret.
"We are utterly baffled particularly in view of the fact that we had a very careful jury," he said.
McGhee's attorneys said they were disappointed but planned to retry the case, and expected Harrington to do the same.
"We have a good case. We have a just case and were going to keep fighting to the end until we get the right results," said defense attorney Stephen Davis from Oak Brook, Ill. He said the judge likely will set a new trial when it fits into the court's schedule.
Davis said settlement negotiations are unlikely because the case has been bitterly fought.
Assistant Council Bluffs City Attorney Michael Sciortino spoke for the city and the police officers. The attorneys for the former officers and the city chose not to be in the courtroom for the verdict.
"The city of Council Bluffs and the police officers involved will now weigh their options," he said in a telephone interview.
The verdicts Pratt read in court indicated jurors had found in favor of Larsen, Brown and the city of Council Bluffs on both major issues. The first issue was whether Harrington and McGhee's constitutional rights to due process had been violated. The second was whether the city had failed to adequately train and supervise the police officers.
When the judge polled the jurors to ensure all agreed, three women said no.
In 2010, Pottawattamie County agreed to pay Harrington and McGhee $12 million to settle claims against two former prosecutors while not admitting wrongdoing. The settlement did not include claims against Council Bluffs and the former detectives.
Harrington and McGhee said 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.
Spence told jurors during the trial that the police officers "betrayed law and order, betrayed the oath they took as police officers and they betrayed their duty to protect us all."
The city of Council Bluffs disputed allegations that the investigators framed McGhee and Harrington and contended the officers had enough evidence against them to lead to convictions in two separate trials.
A prison barber, Anne Danaher, befriended Harrington and believed his story that he was innocent. She dug into the case and discovered evidence in the police files that would have pointed to another suspect that had not been provided to defense attorneys.
The Iowa Supreme Court found that prosecutors committed misconduct in concealing reports about another man seen near the crime scene with a shotgun. Key witnesses had also recanted their testimony, saying they were pressured into implicating the men.