$10.5M deal in Clark County wrongful rape convictions

By Mike Carter | The Seattle Times

Clark County settled a civil-rights lawsuit filed by two men who spent 17 years in prison for a rape that DNA evidence showed they did not commit. Additional litigation could win them another $24 million, their lawyers say.

Clark County has agreed to pay $10.5 million to settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed against its Sheriff’s Office and one of its detectives by two men who spent 17 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of rape.

The county agreed to settle the case before it went to a jury after nine days of trial testimony in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. Each of the men, Larry W. Davis and Alan G. Northrop, will receive $5.25 million.

Davis’ attorney, John Connelly, said that, as part of the settlement, the county has given the men permission to sue its insurance carrier, which had refused to cover the case. If successful, the men could each receive as much as $12 million more, he said.

Davis and Northrop were convicted in 1993 of the rape of a housecleaner, who said she was assaulted by two men who forced their way in, tied her to a kitchen table and assaulted her. The conviction was thrown out in 2010 after DNA evidence recovered from skin beneath the victim’s fingernails did not match either of them.

It took the men seven years and several appeals to eventually win a hearing before a Clark County judge, who overturned the conviction and released the two men.

“The fact this investigation led to the conviction of not just one but two innocent men shows how relentlessly biased it was,” said attorney Tim Ford, who represented Northrop. “It’s a shame it took two decades for the county to finally make amends for that.”

Their criminal appeal was handled by the Innocence Project at the University of Washington. Connelly and his partner, Micah LeBank, represented Davis. Northrop was represented by Ford and David Whedbed, Seattle civil-rights attorneys.

The men filed a civil-rights lawsuit in 2012, and court filings and other evidence alleged that the case detective, Donald Slagle — an officer with an extensive disciplinary history — tainted the eyewitness identification of the men by showing the victim photographs of them before a lineup.

Even then, the woman initially did not identify them — a fact that was withheld from defense attorneys during the criminal trial, according to court documents.

Earlier this year, 20 years after the crime, a box of Slagle’s personal notes was found in the sheriff’s archive that contained reports and names of other suspects provided to Slagle that he testified he was unaware of during the federal trial. Among the other possible suspects he had been alerted to was a man who had a sex-offender for a roommate, according to the court record.

The Sheriff’s Office also withheld from the defense the fact that the victim was under investigation for embezzlement of her employer. According to the woman, she had been sent to clean an already clean house and was suddenly assaulted by two men she had never seen before.

They left after the woman said a horn honked and one of them said, “That’s our signal.”

Connelly said police never looked into the possibility that the assault may have been set up in retaliation for the thefts.

“This was an incredibly slipshod investigation,” Connelly said. “The evidence against these men was incredibly thin.”

Slagle has a long disciplinary record, including 11 sustained findings for a variety of constitutional and policy violations, including excessive use of force, abuse of authority and dereliction of duty.

In 2006, he was found unfit for duty — the second time in his career — and was allowed to retire with his full pension of $3,639.45 a month.

The county maintained that Slagle and other investigators had conducted a “sound and solid police investigation” where the “overwhelming amount of evidence pointed to these two men,” said Bernard Veljacic, a deputy Clark County prosecuting attorney during opening statements in the federal civil-rights trial.

The county has maintained that, just because the DNA did not match does not mean Northrop and Davis did not commit the crime.

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office did not return a call Monday for comment.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a measure that allows people who were wrongfully convicted to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state.

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