Often times civil rights lawsuits can settle for large amount of money prior to the cases going to trial. This can be good for both sides and insulate them for the risk associated with a civil rights trial.
Nearly 14 years after Stephanie Crowe was stabbed to death in her Escondido bedroom, her family agreed to a $7.25 million settlement with the cities of Escondido and Oceanside for what one appeals court called “psychologically abusive” interrogations of the slain child’s then-teenage brother.
“There is a degree of vindication,” said brother Michael Crowe, now 28 and a first-time expectant father.
The settlement, announced Friday morning, draws to a close a federal civil rights lawsuit related to a slaying investigation that grabbed national headlines —- even spawning a made-for-TV movie —- and split community opinion about just who killed the 12-year-old honors student in her Escondido home in January 1998.
“We are done, just done,” Stephanie’s mother, Cheryl Crowe, said Friday. “No amount of money will make them see their errors.”
An Escondido police spokesman as well as an Escondido deputy city attorney handling the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The municipalities are the final defendants to reach a settlement with the Crowe family, which has long maintained it was victimized —- and Michael mentally brutalized —- by police so eager to make an arrest that they wrongly zeroed in on three innocent teenagers instead of a more likely suspect: a mentally ill transient who bizarrely approached their neighbors moments before the child was attacked.
With just 10 days until the trial started, the Crowes agreed to a settlement to be split with their longtime attorney Milt Silverman and then among family members. After years of fighting, fatigue took its toll, as did the family’s excitement at a baby on the way.
“We wanted to go to trial so bad,” Cheryl Crowe said. “The case is the strongest it has ever been, but we don’t want to go anymore. We are just tired and we don’t trust what could happen. We don’t want to spend another 10 years of our lives with that garbage. … I’m turning my thoughts to the new baby.”
Crowe family attorney Silverman said insurer AIG will pay the settlement; no taxpayer money will be used.
“My clients are happy,” Silverman said. “They thanked the courts for giving them justice.”
Even though the settlement means the civil rights portion of the case is over, the matter of just who killed Stephanie remains very much alive in the criminal courts. The mentally ill transient convicted of sneaking into the home and killing the child was just this year granted a new trial. The courts are still weighing legal matters in that criminal case.
Stephanie’s brother, Michael Crowe, was 14 when police suspected he and his high school freshman friends killed his popular younger sister, stabbing her to death in her bed. After hours of interrogations, the three teens made damning statements; one of them even made an outright confession. But in the years after the slaying, judges in both criminal and civil courts came to determine that the statements had been coerced by police.
The teens’ lengthy interrogations were at the center of the civil rights suit the family brought against Escondido police and others, including an Oceanside police detective called in to assist during the questioning.
A federal trial judge in San Diego dismissed the bulk of the civil rights suit in 2004. But six years later, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit, finding that Escondido police violated the civil rights of Crowe and his friends during “hours of grueling, psychologically abusive interrogations.”
The federal appeals court found that Crowe and his friends endured “psychological torture” during police questioning. The result was coerced confessions that led to murder charges against “innocent teenagers for a crime they did not commit,” the appeals court found.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Escondido’s request that it review the appeals court findings.
The settlements with a number of defendants followed.
Cheryl Crowe credited Silverman’s tenacity in keeping alive a difficult and complex case that he had taken on contingency more than a decade ago.
“Without Milt, we would never have had a voice inside the court,” she said. “He was ready to retire when he took this case. But he kept a promise to my mom that he would see this case to the end.”
Cheryl Crowe’s mother, Judith Kennedy, died in 2001. It was she who found her granddaughter’s lifeless body.
Although Escondido police originally suspected Michael Crowe and his teenage buddies, DNA evidence linked a mentally ill transient to the child’s slaying. The case was moved from Escondido police to a cold case detective with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s homicide unit.
In 2004, the transient, Richard Tuite, now 42, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for sneaking into the Crowe home and killing the girl while her family slept.
But earlier this year, a federal appeals court overturned Tuite’s conviction, finding that the jury should have heard more about the backgrounds of dueling crime scene analysts who offered opposing theories of the slaying.
State prosecutors have asked the federal courts to reconsider the decision to overturn Tuite’s conviction. As of Friday, with the courts still weighing the criminal case, Tuite —- who has schizophrenia —- remained in custody at the California Medical Facility, a psychiatric institution for the state’s male prisoners.
Cheryl Crowe said it scares her that Tuite’s conviction was overturned, and she worries about public safety once he is released.
“The thought of Richard Tuite hurting another child is very troubling to me,” she said.
Michael Crowe said he agreed to the settlement even though Escondido police do not accept liability for wrongdoing.
“There is not any price that would make what they did right,” he said when reached at his home in Oregon. “But in the end, the price was just fair enough for us to accept. … It’s unfortunate, but we came to realize that the police would never admit they were wrong. And that is unfortunate for everyone who lives in that city.”
Cheryl Crowe, who has also relocated to Oregon, said one settlement item was non-negotiable: The amount of the settlement had to be made public.
“We refused to settle if it remained confidential,” Cheryl Crowe said. “We said, ‘No, that is not acceptable.’ They know they did something wrong.”
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