LOS ANGELES — A Sunland man who sued the city for alleged civil rights violations was awarded $1.31 million Wednesday in federal court after the jury found that Glendale Police wrongly detained him for eight months in 2005 on suspicion of murder.
Of the $1.31 million, two detectives were held liable Wednesday for $75,000 each in punitive damages to 28-year-old Edmond Ovasapyan, with $1.16 million attributed to the city in the preliminary ruling made Friday, officials said.
State law allows for the city to pay the punitive tab of the detectives if the City Council deems it warranted, but no decision on the matter was expected for at least a week.
Ovasapyan filed the lawsuit in 2007, claiming Glendale police improperly arrested and detained him two years earlier in connection to the shooting death of 21-year-old Christopher Shahanzari, then withheld evidence from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office that would have exonerated him.
He was eventually released, but only after spending roughly eight months in jail.
After the verdict Wednesday, Ovasapyan said “words could not describe” how he felt.
“They were wrong from day one, and now justice has prevailed the way it was supposed to,” he said.
A decision from the city on what course to take next, including a possible appeal, would be forthcoming in the next few days, said City Atty. Scott Howard.
“I’m disappointed in the verdict for both Friday and today,” he said. “It does not square with our understanding of the facts.”
Glendale Police and city officials contend Ovasapyan’s entire incarceration was the result of a series of unfortunate events in which an initial investigation turned cold but then got mired in a county bureaucracy.
Shahanzari was shot and killed Nov. 1, 2005, after he interrupted a home-invasion robbery at his house on the 1300 block of Bruce Street. His mother, who was inside at the time, reportedly identified Ovasapyan as one of three suspects, leading to his arrest the following day.
Glendale Police gathered evidence that allegedly tied him to the scene and turned it over to the county District Attorney’s Office, which decided to move forward with murder charges.
He was held at the Glendale jail before being transferred to a county hold facility while he awaited a preliminary trial, where he was held to answer on murder charges that could have led to life in prison.
But at the point when local authorities were released from the case, Howard said, Glendale Police detectives continued to investigate various leads. Eventually, DNA evidence collected at the scene of the shooting exonerated Ovasapyan, but even then, city officials said the county dragged its feet in dropping the charges.
All told, Ovasapyan spent about eight months in jail after “being prosecuted in the media” and fretting over facing life imprisonment “or even the death penalty,” he said Wednesday.
“They did not consider my life,” Ovasapyan said.
After his release, he retained Mark Geragos’ law firm, which filed the civil rights complaint in 2007, alleging Glendale police “acted hastily, rashly and without deference” to due process, causing “an innocent man to face the horrendous reality of jail and the nightmare of a pending murder trial,” according to court documents.
Ovasapyan and his legal team also asserted detectives had no basis for arresting him in the first place, and that they failed to present alibi evidence and other material that would have halted the investigation.
District attorneys are largely shielded from being sued for malicious prosecution and wrongful detainment, but city officials were unwavering Wednesday in defending their own role in the incident.
“Ovasapyan was not in our custody, and we were still trying to bring forward the exculpatory information ... so it is unfortunate that the taxpayers end up footing the bill for this,” Mayor John Drayman said.
While the jury in the trial was dissolved Wednesday, Howard said the judge had yet to rule in several pretrial motions that could affect the ultimate outcome of the case, including one to dismiss the lawsuit.
A ruling on those motions was expected in the next 10 days.
If the judgments are upheld, the City Council could still decide to appeal.
JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.