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Baltimore to pay $9M to settle wrongful conviction lawsuit

The Baltimore City Board of Estimates is set to approve this week a $9 million settlement with a man who spent 20 years in jail for a murder he did not commit, a conviction he alleged in a lawsuit was due to exculpatory evidence withheld by police and prosecutors.

James Owens, who was released from prison in 2008, will be paid in installments over six fiscal years if the city spending panel approves the payout at its meeting Wednesday. A trial in U.S. District Court was scheduled to begin May 21.

Owens would receive $3 million by June 30 and $2 million by July 15, according to the Baltimore City Law Department’s memorandum about the settlement. Owens would then receive $1 million annually for four years beginning in July 2020.

The law department, in its memorandum, said the police department and the detectives involved “dispute virtually all of the material facts” but recommended the settlement in part due to “the current legal environment surrounding the Baltimore City Police Department.”

City Solicitor Andre M. Davis did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon. Attorneys for Owens declined to comment Monday. He was represented by Baltimore firms Levin & Curlett LLC and Brown Goldstein & Levy LLP.

Owens filed suit in 2011 and his case was dismissed on statute of limitations and immunity grounds and for failure to state a claim. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially revived the case in 2014 and remanded it for trial. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2015, clearing the path for the litigation.

The law department recommended the settlement based on facts cited by the appellate panel in concluding Owens’ claims the police department and detectives failed to disclose exculpatory evidence could be supported.

Owens was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the 1987 rape and murder of Colleen Williar. Owens became a suspect after the victim’s neighbor, James Thompson, told police about finding a knife outside her door and later said he has retrieved it at Owens’ request, according to the 4th Circuit opinion. But Thompson changed his story several times prior to trial, a fact prosecutors did not disclose to Owens’ defense attorney, according to the appellate opinion.

During Owens’ trial, the prosecutor tested forensic evidence that linked Thompson to Williar’s body, and re-interrogated him. Thompson changed his story five more times but police only told prosecutors about the last version, which involved Thompson assisting Owens with the robbery but Owens raping and murdering the victim. But the multiple versions of Thompson’s story and the physical evidence connecting him to Williar were not disclosed to the defense, according to the opinion.

Owens was convicted of burglary and felony murder and exhausted his appellate remedies, after which he made several unsuccessful bids for post-conviction relief until 2006, when a Baltimore judge allowed DNA testing that indicated the samples taken from the crime scene did not match Owens. Post-conviction proceedings were reopened in 2007 and he was granted a new trial but in 2008, prosecutors dropped the charges and he was released.

The case is James Owens v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 1:11-cv-03295-GLR.

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