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Suit: Police ‘culture’ led to woman’s murder

Veronica Williams was stabbed to death by her husband in the middle of the day outside the courthouse where she had just gotten a protective order against him on Nov. 17, 2008.

Even more shocking than the murder itself, allegations later surfaced that the Baltimore Police Department had shielded the murderer, community activist Cleaven L. Williams Jr., from assault charges his wife brought against him shortly before her death.

Citing unnamed police sources, The Baltimore Sun reported in March 2009 that Deputy Major Daniel A. Lioi sent text messages to Cleaven Williams, warning him that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The Sun also reported that Williams tried to turn himself in three days before the murder but when he arrived at the Eastern District precinct, officers there — including Lioi — could not find the warrant, and let him go.

Members of Veronica Williams’ family filed suit against Cleaven Williams, Lioi, and the police department Tuesday. They claim Lioi’s actions fit a culture of corruption and preferential treatment in the department that stretches back to 1994.

“Based on the media accounts … and information that’s already been made public, what happened here is shocking,” said Cary J. Hansel III, the attorney for Veronica Williams’ cousin Carlin Robinson, who is the guardian of her three children. “You have officers who, in effect, have warned this guy off and basically became co-conspirators.”

Cleaven Williams was convicted of first-degree murder in February and is serving a life sentence.

Lioi, who was suspended indefinitely after the murder, has been restored to active duty and is now head of the district detective unit, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

“He was investigated by the department and there was no criminal action found by either the department or the state’s attorney’s office,” Guglielmi said.

Guglielmi would not comment on whether Lioi violated any police policies or whether internal disciplinary action was taken; but “obviously, if there was any type of wrongdoing found, action would have been taken,” he said.

Lioi declined to comment via an email forwarded by Guglielmi.

‘Big picture’ perspective

In addition to Veronica Williams’ murder, the suit mentions 12 incidents of Baltimore police corruption over the course of 17 years — ranging from city Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean being served with a criminal summons rather than being arrested on felony charges in 1994, to the current Majestic Towing Co. kickback scandal in which more than 30 officers have been implicated.

Hansel said he intended to provide a “big-picture” perspective into a persistent failure of the police department to respond to misconduct.

In what’s known as a Monell claim, the suit seeks to show the failure to protect Veronica Williams was part of a governmental policy, practice or custom.

“To me, the only way to get to the culture that pervades some of these departments is to bring up the entire history of misconduct in each case,” said Hansel, a civil rights attorney with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt.

Hansel used a similar approach to get a $6 million verdict for a client who was falsely accused of killing his wife in Prince George’s County. The verdict was upheld by the Court of Special Appeals in January 2010.

Guglielmi said there is no culture of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department under Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

He noted that most of the incidents cited in the lawsuit occurred before Bealefeld took over in 2007.

The subsequent incidents, Guglielmi said, were all rooted out and halted by the department itself.

“We just don’t tolerate any behavior or conduct that undermines the integrity of the department,” he said.

Settlements up

But the department has also come under fire recently for the amount of money the city is spending to settle police misconduct lawsuits in difficult economic times.

During a hearing Tuesday, the city budget office revealed that the Law Department spent $10.4 million to settle lawsuits in the last three years.

That’s up from the three-year total given a little over a year ago. In August 2010, City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway told The Daily Record the Law Department had paid $7.25 million to settle suits in the prior three years.

When asked if the most recent tally indicates a pattern of misconduct in the department, Guglielmi said it was comparable to other police departments of similar size, and said settling a suit did not indicate that there was any credibility to the claim.

“You’ll have to take that up with the city solicitor,” he said.

Nilson said Guglielmi was correct in that, while “we don’t generally settle utterly frivolous cases,” a settlement is never an admission of fault or wrongdoing.

When briefed on the outline of Hansel’s Monell claim, Nilson said it would not stand up in court.

“He will not get $6 million in Baltimore City,” Nilson said. “I’m pretty confident.”

Hansel’s co-counsel, Daniel L. Cox, represents Veronica Williams’ mother, Eunice Graves. Cox did not return a phone call Tuesday.

The suit notes that the stabbing took two lives, since Veronica Williams was pregnant when she was killed.

It seeks $10 million in compensation and $20 million in punitive damages on each of 12 counts.