June 10, 2013


Justice Prevails: Bought Testimony Kills Verdict

$325G Brutality Award Spiked


A Federal judge dismissed a jury verdict in favor of a man who sued the city for police brutality because the plaintiff had signed an agreement to give a key witness 20 percent of any compensation he received from the suit. Along with the verdict, the man lost $325,000 in damages.

The plaintiff, Sean Thomas, sued three NYPD officers in 2009, claiming they had used excessive force against him a year earlier when investigating a domestic-violence complaint at the Bronx apartment of his girlfriend, Leticia Marrow, where he lived.

Handcuffed, Not Charged

“The parties at trial vigorously disputed what happened next,” according to an opinion written last October by U.S. District Judge Andrew L. Carter Jr. that reduced the damages from $625,000 to $325,000, “but by around 3 a.m., Thomas was handcuffed, wrapped in a restraint blanket, strapped to a stretcher, and transported in an ambulance to receive a psychological evaluation at Barnabas Hospital, where he was involuntarily sedated.

“Thomas woke up around 9 a.m. in a bed in the emergency room naked and covered only by a sheet,” Judge Carter continued. “Thomas was free to leave the hospital, and he was not charged with any crime nor did he receive a summons or a desk-appearance ticket.”

The officers said Mr. Thomas was behaving irrationally, and was threatening violence and suicide, justifying an arrest for trespassing, menacing and on other grounds. Mr. Thomas said officers had overreacted to a minor domestic dispute and had kicked and punched him and dragged him up the street, in handcuffs, by his hair.

A jury found the officers had used excessive force and arrested Mr. Thomas without cause.

Among those testifying was Ms. Marrow, who Judge Carter wrote in a decision filed June 4 was “the key witness on the issue before the jury of whether the defendants had probable cause to arrest Thomas.”

Paid for Her Testimony

Days after Judge Carter’s decision on the damages, Mr. Thomas’s lawyers, David Zelman and Ryan Asher, forwarded him a signed agreement, notarized June 30, 2012, three days before Ms. Marrow testified. It promised her 20 percent of Mr. Thomas’s award or, if he lost, obligated her to pay 10 percent of any costs assessed for the defense, let Mr. Thomas live with her rent-free for 60 days, and required her to contribute $50 a month toward his motorcycle loan. The attorneys said they had no prior knowledge of the agreement.

State law prohibits paying a witness for favorable testimony. This law covers witnesses giving facts but not expert witnesses. City attorney Raju Sundaran said, “As the court recognized, the plaintiff’s misconduct completely undermined the verdict.” 

Double-Cross Backfires

“The letter further memorialized that at some point after the verdict was rendered, Thomas borrowed money from a lending company but refused to give any of the proceeds to Marrow,” Judge Carter said in his June 4 opinion. “On July 31, 2012, acting on her purported rights under the agreement, Marrow filed [a complaint in Bronx County Court] “for breach of contract or warranty for $25,000, with interest,” Judge Carter wrote.

He noted that Ms. Marrow had told the jury she had no financial interest in any award Mr. Thomas might receive. The agreement refers to “pain and suffering” sustained by Ms. Marrow regarding Mr. Thomas’s suit against the city.

Judge Carter ordered a new trial, saying a new jury would have to weigh whether Mr. Thomas and Ms. Marrow were believable. In the first trial, “it is precisely Marrow’s credibility as a witness and Thomas’s credibility as a witness and litigant that the jury was called to weight. Yet with straight faces and concealed contract, Marrow and Thomas testified and the jury credited their story rather than the equally plausible tale recounted by defendants.”

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, said, “New York City police officers have increasingly become targets of baseless litigation because the city frequently chooses to settle suits to save money rather than fight them.

“Even though it may cost more in the short term, we believe that the city is better served in the long run by fighting these suits more vigorously as they did in this case, which resulted in the exposure of collusion. In the end, fighting to protect the reputations of New York City police officers who are falsely accused will deter the fraudsters and opportunists and save millions in taxpayers’ money.”