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Deceased exoneree’s family wins $8M settlement with Baltimore police

Malcolm Bryant speaks at an event in 2016 after his exoneration. He died in 2017.

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates on Wednesday approved an $8 million settlement with the family of a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1999 and served 17 years in prison before being exonerated.

The man, Malcolm J. Bryant, was freed from prison in 2016 and died in 2017, less than a year after his release.

“Through 17 years of wrongful incarceration, Mr. Bryant steadfastly maintained his innocence,” said two of the family’s lawyers, Amelia Green and Anisha Queen. “While no amount can right all that Mr. Bryant and his family lost during those years, this settlement is further vindication of Mr. Bryant’s irrefutable innocence and that his wrongful conviction was caused by Baltimore Police Department misconduct.”

The Board of Estimates unanimously voted to approve the settlement, which ended a federal lawsuit that Bryant’s estate brought against the Baltimore Police Department, homicide detective William Ritz and forensic analyst Barry Verger.

City Comptroller Bill Henry said he’d been briefed on the case by the city’s law department.

“While I understand that there are facts in dispute in this case, I don’t think anybody disputes that this was a tragic situation, so I just wanted to offer my condolences to the family of the plaintiff,” Henry said.

Bryant was 23 when Baltimore police charged him in the brutal murder of Toni Bullock, a 16-year-old who was fatally stabbed on Nov. 20, 1998. Bryant was convicted of first-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison.

The lawsuit alleged that Baltimore police honed in on Bryant early in the investigation and ignored evidence that pointed to another suspect. The complaint charged that Ritz coached an eyewitness to pick Bryant out of a photo array, despite her description of the attacker differing from Bryant’s clothing and appearance.

Investigators also collected fingernail clippings from Bullock’s body in order to conduct testing, but no DNA testing was completed even though blood was recovered on the fingernails, according to the complaint.

Verger claimed that the fingernails were completely consumed when he tested for the presence of blood and that no further testing was possible, the complaint alleges. That was not true, according to the lawsuit: later DNA testing of the clippings was used to exonerate Bryant in the murder.

The lawsuit alleged violations of Bryant’s federal due process rights, malicious prosecution and a Monell claim that argued the officers were acting pursuant to policies and practices of the police department.

In a February 2020 memorandum opinion, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander allowed most of the counts against the police department and the officers to proceed.

“The Complaint paints a compelling picture of a police department that turned a blind eye
to the conduct of its officers in murder investigations, suppressing exculpatory evidence,” Hollander wrote.

Bryant was exonerated in 2016, after the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law took up the case and prosecutors reopened the investigation into Bullock’s slaying.

The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office ultimately agreed that Bryant was innocent and dismissed the charges against him.