by Christopher Zoukis
Baltimore officials agreed in May 2018 to settle a claim of wrongful conviction brought by a man who spent more than 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The city agreed to pay exoneree James “J.J.” Owens $9 million, the largest settlement in city history, in order to avoid a jury from hearing the shocking details of Owens’ wrongful conviction.
Colleen Williar was raped and murdered in 1987. James Thompson, Owens’ friend and neighbor, decided to try to collect a $1,000 reward by lying to the police about the murder weapon. By the time the Baltimore police were done with him, Thompson had implicated himself and Owens in a crime in which neither were actually involved. They both were tried, convicted, and given life without parole.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the semen found in the victim was tested, and it was immediately clear that it did not belong to either Thompson or Owens. Other evidence that the wrong men had been convicted surfaced, and both Thompson and Owens were granted a new trial.
Prosecutors played hardball, refusing to drop the charges unless the men accepted an “Alford plea.” Such a plea would allow for immediate release but would also prevent a lawsuit for wrongful conviction. Thompson took the plea deal and was released. Owens said no, and prosecutors left him in prison for 16 months.
In fact, the state waited until the very day that they would have to retry Owens to drop the charges and let him go free. Owens sued in federal court, but his first lawyer failed to keep the suit from being dismissed. Charles Curlett of the Baltimore law firm Brown Goldstein & Levy took the case up and appealed the dismissal.
“My view was it was a fight worth fighting, and if there was a way to navigate the litigation and achieve justice we would try and find it,” said Curlett.
It turned out to be worth the fight. Owens won his appeal, and during settlement negotiations, a federal jury awarded a different Baltimore exoneree $15 million. After years of doing everything possible to avoid paying for wrongfully taking more than two decades of Owens’ life, the city suddenly realized it was time to settle.
Steven Mercer, the former public defender who represented Owens and Thompson in their innocence claims, said that for the city, the writing was on the wall.
“I think they correctly analyzed the risk to the city,” Mercer said. “The facts of each case really drive it and the facts for J.J. are quite compelling.”
Owens got the call about the settlement while he was working at his cousin’s gutter hanging company, where he had worked since his release in 2008. He immediately gave his cousin two weeks’ notice, saying he “wanted to sit back and relax.” But he said he would rather things had worked out differently 30 years ago.
“I’d rather have the time back than the money,” Owens said.
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