A Supreme Court case testing whether a prosecutor can be sued for framing suspects for a murder ended Monday when an Iowa county agreed to pay $12 million to two men who were freed after spending 26 years in prison.
In the past, the high court had said prosecutors could not be sued for doing their jobs, even if they sometimes convicted the wrong defendant. And in November, an Obama administration lawyer argued on behalf of Pottawattamie County, asserting that there is no constitutional “right not to be framed.”
But several justices said they found that argument appalling. They signaled they were not prepared to shield prosecutors who knowingly fabricated a case against a suspect.
Over the holidays, the county and its lawyers offered to settle the case by paying $12 million to Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, who were convicted as teenagers in 1978 of murdering a night security guard. Both men are black.
On Monday, the Supreme Court said it was dismissing the case because it was settled.
“We’re delighted to have this settled. It has been a long time coming for them,” said Doug McCalla, a lawyer who sued on behalf of Harrington. “Cases like Terry’s make it very clear that we need the powerful remedies provided by this country’s civil rights statutes.”
Harrington was a high school football star in Omaha when a retired police officer was shot and killed at a car dealership in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the summer of 1977.
A white suspect was identified by a witness, and after he was arrested, he failed a lie detector test.
But police changed direction after they picked up a 16-year-old black youth for stealing cars. When pressed for information on the Council Bluffs killing, he fingered Harrington and another black youth.
Although his initial statements were inaccurate on key details, including the weapon, police and prosecutors relied on the 16-year-old to build a murder case.
Despite their claims of innocence, the two men were convicted before an all-white jury and sentenced to long prison terms.
Decades later, they were able to obtain official files showing that police and prosecutors Dave Richter and Joe Hrvol coaxed the witness to implicate them, while ignoring evidence that pointed to the white suspect. The sole witness against the two men recanted his testimony.
The Iowa courts overturned their convictions five years ago. Harrington and McGhee then sued the county, prosecutors and police in federal court for violating their civil rights, alleging that the prosecutors knowingly used false testimony to convict them.
The prosecutors said they still believed Harrington and McGhee were guilty.
In the Supreme Court, a lawyer for the prosecutors agreed that police could be sued for fabricating evidence, but not prosecutors, even if they worked together.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that was “a strange proposition.”
Justice John Paul Stevens called it “perverse.”
Facing a likely loss in the high court, the county moved to settle the case.