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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006 05:42 am

The verdict

Jurors hoped to stick it to former SPD brass, not just the city. No such luck.

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You’ve heard this story a million times: Jury sits through a trial, listens in earnest, deliberates in good faith, delivers a verdict. Then sometime later — usually just as the credits roll, if it’s on TV — it dawns on the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that the verdict won’t be carried out in quite the way they meant for it to be. Maybe the bad guy will get out of prison sooner than they thought, or the party they intended to hold responsible won’t actually have to pay. It’s one of those quirks of the American justice system that has no apparent cure. You’d have to stuff jury boxes with the kind of people who understand legal hocus-pocus (aka lawyers), and nobody wants that. Luckily, they’re making smarter jurors these days — jurors who have watched an episode or two of Law & Order or The Practice. They realize they’re tippy-toeing through a minefield of wherefores and whatnots, hoping to avoid all the legal booby traps. Take, for example, the jury who, just last week, sat through the trial of former Springfield Police Chief John Harris and former SPD Commander Dan Hughes. Harris, you recall, resigned from SPD in 2003, shortly after a reporter discovered he that had allowed a rookie named Renatta Frazier to suffer almost a year under the excruciating — but patently false — accusation that she had failed to prevent the rape of the teenage daughter of a fellow officer. That mess was just the capper to Harris’ colorful eight-year career here. Before the Frazier scandal, there was the January 1999 “Office Tavern incident,” in which a group of off-duty officers beat up some poor schmuck who happened to ding one of their cars in a bar’s parking lot. The officer Harris ultimately fired for that melee, Dan Patterson, was later acquitted by a jury and reinstated by an arbitrator. But last week, Officer Rob Fleck tried to convince a federal jury that he, too, had been fired because of the Office Tavern debacle. Fleck — whose only role in the beating was trying to stop the fight and calm people down, according to witnesses — claimed that Harris wasn’t satisfied with the way in which he testified against Patterson and blamed him for Patterson’s acquittal. Harris subsequently fired Fleck — twice — but for reasons that he claimed were unrelated to the bar brawl: once for mishandling evidence from a pair of suspected drug dealers and once for calling in sick two days during the Illinois State Fair. An arbitrator later ruled that Fleck’s handling of the drug evidence was “egregious” and “foolhardy” but not a firing offense and ordered him reinstated. The city then gave Fleck a choice of resigning over the sick-time issue or being charged with perjury for testimony in a federal trial [see “SPD’s revolving door,” April 3, 2003]. Fleck refused and eventually won his job back, but not before losing more than a year’s worth of pay. The jurors who sat through this tedious testimony ultimately agreed with Fleck, finding that Harris, the city, and, to a lesser extent, Hughes (who was head of SPD’s internal-affairs department during the relevant period) had violated Fleck’s rights to freedom of speech and due process. Which brings us to the questions of how much money Fleck should get and who should have to pay it. Complicating these questions was the concept of indemnification — the protection a municipality provides to its employees, ensuring that they can’t be financially penalized for doing their jobs. Indemnity applies for wages and compensatory damages but not for punitive damages. During deliberations, jurors sent the judge two questions showing that they were struggling with dollars and sense. One note asked: “Who is responsible for back pay?” Another note asked: “Can we designate for each defendant the amount of back pay?” The judge — with input from both side’s attorneys — responded in writing. On the first question, the judge wrote, “All three Defendants, City of Springfield, Hughes, and Harris are responsible for back pay.” On the second question, his answer was a simple no. That’s pretty clear, right? So the jury awarded Fleck $51,000 in back pay but nothing in compensatory or punitive damages — which means that the city will write Fleck a check for the total and Harris and Hughes will pay Fleck nothing, not one ding-dang dime. This math was surprising news to one juror contacted days after the trial. “The way we understood it, they were each going to pay equal portions,” he said. “We were all under the impression it was going to be thirds.” They wanted to teach the defendants a lesson but not bankrupt them. “Any settlement would’ve been an attempt to tell them not to do anything like this in the future,” the juror said. “For Hughes to shell out $17,000 and Harris to shell out $17,000, we thought it was plenty.” That’s why the jurors didn’t add punitive damages. For Fleck, contacted through his attorney, the jury’s ruling is bittersweet. “To watch those two grovel in court and cry and be scared to death that they would lose their jobs — that was worth $1.5 mil right there,” Fleck says. “But they only got to feel that for 24 hours; I had to feel it for 13 months.”
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