Settlement unlikely in wrongful death lawsuit against Tshamba

Gahiji Tshamba

Gahiji Tshamba

A $30 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a man killed outside a Baltimore nightclub by a former city police officer appears headed to trial.

A lawyer for Gahiji Tshamba, the ex-officer, wrote in a status report filed Tuesday in federal court that they “believe there is no prospect of settlement.”

Tshamba is serving a 15-year sentence in the shooting death of Tyrone Brown outside of a Baltimore nightclub in June 2010. Tshamba was off-duty at the time and shot Brown 12 times with a department-issued gun. The incident began when Brown slapped Tshamba’s female friend on the backside.

The lawsuit filed by Brown’s family in March 2011 seeks $10 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.

The Baltimore Police Department and City of Baltimore were also named as defendants in the suit but had claims against them bifurcated, meaning they will be heard separately from Tshamba’s.

In their status report filed last week, lawyers for police and the city said their clients want to participate in Tshamba’s trial as intervening parties on the issue of whether Tshamba acted “under the color of law,” meaning he was still acting in his official duties as a police officer.

Lawyers for Brown’s family in their status report said Monday they objected to police and the city intervening because there would be no chance for discovery from police and the city since the case was bifurcated.

A supplemental settlement conference is scheduled for Dec. 3, according to court documents.

Law blog roundup

speed cameraWelcome to Monday, the day before the 24th anniversary of the best rendition I ever heard of this Gladys Knight and the Pips standard. Here are some news items to get your week started.

– Federal judge deems New York’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional.

– U.S. attorney general seeks to alter mandatory minimum sentences.

– British businessman’s family seeks damages in Chinese murder case.

– Speed cameras come to Chicago. Can Windy City legal challenges be far behind?


Law blog roundup

Ray LewisWelcome to the morning after. I hope you enjoyed the game.

Here are some news items to assist in the recovery.

– Supreme Court justice and best-selling author Sonia Sotomayor’s book tour hits New York.

– The California city of Bell encounters legal hell.

– Civil rights attorneys challenge police surveillance of Muslim communities.

– Man’s murder had malty motive.


Bealefeld talks Tasers on ’60 Minutes’

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III was interviewed for a “60 Minutes” piece on Tasers that aired Sunday night.

Bealefeld expressed some skepticism about the electric shock devices, saying he was “not a fan” and that he feared they could be used as a “short-cutted method” for getting people to comply.

Bealefeld said that less than 500 Tasers have been issued to the department’s 2,800 sworn members.

Even so, the department has at least two lawsuits pending against it for allegedly using Tasers unnecessarily. Leon Coley, a 66-year-old man with heart ailments, sued two police officers last month, saying they shocked him with a Taser twice while he was sitting on his couch in his home. According to the suit, the officers were responding to a phone call from Coley’s wife, who was in a verbal argument with Coley.

The department is also currently in litigation with Carl Jackson, a disabled Navy veteran with ”skeletal issues” who says two officers assaulted him and shocked him with a Taser outside his home “without reason or cause” in June 2010.

Watch the video from “60 Minutes” Sunday night:

Young: Former police helicopter pilot was “whistleblower”

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young has made a habit recently of voting against settlements for police misconduct lawsuits, saying that better training would prevent many of the costly suits.

But Young voted for the $245,000 settlement for former police helicopter pilot Samuel K. Miller that was approved unanimously at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting. Miller had accused his superiors in the Aviation Unit of ostracizing him and tricking him into resigning in 2007 after he wrote a letter that detailed waste and misuse of the unit’s resources, including a “dog and pony show” helicopter landing at the school of the unit commander’s children.

After voting with his colleagues to approve Miller’s settlement, Young called Miller a “whistleblower.”

“I respect that,” Young said. “He should not have been disciplined or lost his job because of that.”

Young voted against a $45,000 settlement for Rodney Hueston, whose lawsuit alleged officers Anthony S. Weems and Renard D. Owens broke his left arm during an unlawful arrest in 2009. Charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and possession of an open container of alcohol were dropped against Hueston after he was treated for his injuries.

Hueston’s settlement was approved despite Young’s “No” vote.

Young votes against police settlement

“Great morning, everyone,” Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in calling to order today’s giddy, post-election Board of Estimates meeting.

There was plenty of back-slapping between Young and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose victories were nearly as dominant as the Ravens’ beatdown of the Steelers two days ago. The normally staid mayor also wryly congratulated comptroller Joan M. Pratt on her “hard-fought” re-election (Pratt ran unopposed).

But once the good vibes died down and the council bit into the meat of the meeting, Young disagreed with the rest of his colleagues on a $30,000 police misconduct settlement , casting the lone “no” vote as the settlement slid through on the consent agenda.

Though it was a relatively small settlement, Young spokesman Lester Davis said the council president wants to send a message that the city is spending too much on police misconduct claims as a whole. He said Young thinks the police department should provide better training to prevent the legitimate claims and the city should be more willing to go to court and fully challenge less solid claims.

“He’s been pretty consistent in terms of wanting to get his message across,” Davis said. “For him, it’s just a belief that the city can not afford to continue to pay out this money.”

According to the city’s Law Department, the city spent $7.25 million settling police misconduct claims between mid-2007 and mid-2010.

Thank you, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Thank you, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And, you’re welcome.

Sunday, a state trooper stopped me for a chat along Interstate 81. Mr. Trooper congratulated me on sparing the driver just ahead of me from getting a ticket.

After checking my license and registration in his car, he returned to say that apparently I am a good driver (thank you, for once, Big Brother), so he was going to give me a break: instead of writing a ticket for speeding, he was charging me with “failed to obey the instructions of an applicable official traffic-control device.” This would mean a fine of half the fine for speeding, and a points-free license and preservation of my safe-driver insurance discount.

An hour later I looked at the citation. I owe Magisterial District No. 21-3-04 either a return visit to plead not guilty, or a check for $110.50. Here’s the breakdown:

$25 fine

$10 Emergency Medical Services Act

$30 Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund

$35.50 Costs

$10 Judicial Computer Project/Access to Justice

It’s been many years since my last roadside chat with a trooper. That one was a lot simpler and cheaper.

So, my haste to get back to Baltimore apparently will benefit Pennsylvania’s health care and judicial systems. Considering how many other drivers were pulled over, the commonwealth should easily balance its budget.

Bernstein trial update

A few notes from day two of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein’s first trial as top prosecutor.

-My story today alluded to two, 55-inch flat screen TVs that were unused during the first day of the trial. Today, they briefly were used by defense lawyer Ken Ravenell to show a still of surveillance video of the West Baltimore corner where the three police officers are accused of kidnapping two teenagers.

-Ravenell finished up his cross-examination of one of the teens, Shawnquin Woodland, which lasted approximately three hours over two days. Most of the interactions followed the same pattern: Ravenell would restate something Woodland told the jury under direct examination; Ravenell would show Woodland the transcript of a statement the teenager gave during previous interviews with police or prosecutors that contradicted what he told jurors; Woodland would deny ever saying what was in the transcript.

Bernstein, when it was his turn to re-direct the witness, re-read portions of the transcript aloud with Woodland and concluded by getting Woodland to confirm, over defense attorney objections, he was telling jurors the truth.

Woodland seemed to give a lot of contradictory answers depending on who was asking the questions, but he always sounded certain in whatever answer he gave. In other words, he sounded like the 17-year-old kid he is. I can imagine the following exchange would resonate with the parents of any teenager:

Ravenell: Did he ask you about the transcript?

Woodland: Yes.

Ravenell: What did he ask you?

Woodland: Nothing.

-What I was most interested to see today were the actions of defense lawyer Dave Irwin, whose client is the only one who opted for a bench trial. Both Ravenell and Michael Belsky, who represented the third officer, hammered Woodland about his seemingly contradictory statements. But Irwin declined to cross-examine Woodland when given the chance and also turned down Judge Timothy J. Doory’s offer to ask questions following Bernstein’s re-direct.

While Ravenell and Belsky loudly and repeatedly objected during Bernstein’s re-direct, Irwin remained silent, occasionally jotting down notes. We’ll keep tabs on the bench trial/jury trial dynamic as the trial moves forward.

The prosecution will continue with its case Thursday afternoon.

Updates on the secret Shapiro settlement

Keith Merryman

Keith Merryman

While Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson and Steven Kupferberg, the attorney for mistakenly arrested violinist Yakov Shapiro, still differ as to the origin of the confidentiality of their settlement, allow me to offer a few updates related to the case.

There’s been a strong reader reaction to the story of Shapiro’s travail — which started when a detective investigating claims of child molestation by Yisroel Shapiro posted a warrant for Yakov Shapiro — and the city’s efforts to keep it quiet. While many Baltimore elected officials have kept to themselves about the questions the case raises about government transparency and training at the police department, a few city council members have spoken up:

  • Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who has taken an interest in the costs of police negligence, said last summer she understood the need for such a confidential settlement “under extraordinary circumstances, once in a blue moon.” But, she said, “this should not happen again anytime soon.” Last week, after finally hearing the details of the Shapiro case, her first reaction was “Oh my God.”

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing to happen and I would hope the necessary steps are taken so something like this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “A settlement is nice but there’s no way that that settlement can undo the damage that was done.”

“If we could all walk away from this with one lesson learned, I would hope that it would be a shared recognition of the importance of transparency in government proceedings,” Henry wrote in an e-mail Wednesday evening. “Perhaps the Board of Estimates needs to develop a better policy of how to deal with confidentiality concerns when allocating City funds. Perhaps we should be trying to record and broadcast not only the actual Board of Estimates proceedings, but the mini-meetings ahead of time when more detailed briefings are given for many of the issues before the Board.

“The Administration has claimed to be supportive of this initiative of the Council President’s (recording and broadcasting B/E meetings, Liquor Board hearings, and BMZA hearings),” Henry continued, “but also claims to be unable to come up with the operating funds needed – less than $50K – leading to the reasonable suspicion that they must be sufficiently comfortable with the status quo.”

Mr. Kupferberg has shielded Yakov Shapiro from press inquiries but he described his client’s reaction to the stories published in yesterday’s paper.

“Yakov was in here today, and I asked him if he wanted to speak to you and he started to cry,” Kupferberg said by phone from his office. “I showed him the story, and he just teared up.”

One detail I wasn’t able to determine before we published Tuesday evening was the identity of the judge who presided over Shapiro’s bail review that November morning three years ago. Well, it seems the voice on the recording was that of C. Yvonne Holt-Stone. According to an e-mail from Baltimore City District Court Administrative Judge John R. Hargrove Jr., Judge Holt-Stone was on the schedule for that morning at Central Booking, where Hargrove says Shapiro’s bail review took place. Holt-Stone, who has been on the city district court bench since 1991 is on leave through the end of the year and could not be reached to confirm her part in the case.

The other person I’ve yet to hear from is Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. He was at the White House yesterday and is out of the office through Christmas, according to his spokesman.

I’m less optimistic about ever hearing from Detective Keith Merryman (who posted the warrant for Yakov Shapiro instead of the real offender, Yisroel Shapiro) or police lawyer Neal M. Janey Jr., who negotiated the settlement, but stay tuned on those fronts.

Artist's court sketch of Yisroel Shapiro (left, with glasses and Kippah)

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about Yisroel Shapiro and how his misdeeds came to light in the generally close-knit and tight-lipped Orthodox Jewish community, have a look at Standing Silent, a documentary that will premier at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February. Phil Jacobs, the executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times who has covered the topic extensively, stars in the film.

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

Law blog roundup

Short work weeks make Mondays that much more bearable. Get a little more enjoyment out of your Monday with some law links below:

  • Maryland’s top court is studying whether the court can alter the contributory negligence standard through a rule or whether it would need to do it through a judicial order. See our story on the study here.
  • The Paycheck Fairness Act fails to get a vote in the Senate.
  • Actor Wesley Snipes was ordered to begin serving his three-year prison sentence Friday. But no money train is going to save this guy from doing time for federal tax evasion.
  • Should terror suspects be tried in civilian courts or military courts? The debate rages on after Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was acquitted of 284 of 285 counts last week in civilian court.
  • Mega insider trading case on the way?
  • Manila could give India a run for its money in legal outsourcing.
  • Work-life balance advocates may have hurt women in the recession.
  • Superheroes band together against the LAPD.