DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Lawyers for two black men wrongly convicted in the 1977 murder of a retired white Iowa police officer told jurors in a civil trial Thursday that investigators coerced witnesses into fabricating testimony.
Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee are suing Council Bluffs and two retired police investigators for more than $100 million. The men were sent to prison for life for the shotgun killing of John Schweer, a retired police captain who was working as a security guard for local car dealerships. Harrington and McGhee were freed in 2003 after 25 years in prison after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct.
Pottawatamie County later agreed to pay $12 million to settle claims against two former prosecutors while not admitting wrongdoing, but the settlement did not resolve claims against Council Bluffs and former detectives Dan Larsen and Lyle Brown.
“The evidence will show these cops betrayed law and order, betrayed the oath they took as police officers and they betrayed their duty to protect us all,” Harrington’s attorney, Gerry Spence, told jurors during opening statements Thursday. “If they can do it to the least of us they can do it to anybody.”
The city of Council Bluffs disputes allegations that the investigators framed McGhee and Harrington and contends the officers had enough evidence against them to take to prosecutors and to lead to convictions.
David Baker, who represents Larsen and Brown, said the officers were determined to find who killed Schweer and it makes no sense that they would try to frame someone else.
“I believe the evidence before you will be that the very last thing my clients wanted to happen was for the true killer of Mr. Schweer to go free,” he told jurors.
Harrington and McGhee, then teenagers from neighboring Omaha, Neb., say detectives used threats against a group of young black car theft suspects to trump up evidence targeting them because of their race and pressure to solve the retired captain’s killing.
Despite little physical evidence, Harrington and McGhee were convicted at 1978 trials.
A prison barber, Anne Danaher, befriended Harrington and believed his story that he was innocent. She dug into the case and discovered evidence in the police files that would have pointed to another suspect that had not been provided to defense attorneys.
The Iowa Supreme Court found that prosecutors committed misconduct in concealing reports about another man seen near the crime scene with a shotgun. Key witnesses had also recanted their testimony, saying they were pressured into implicating the men.
“Good police officers must be open-minded and honestly follow every lead,” Steve Davis, McGhee’s attorney, told jurors. “They don’t let their personal prejudice influence how they think. By all means they don’t manufacture evidence to frame innocent people for a crime.”
But the city’s attorney, Kristopher Madsen, said the officers followed proper investigative techniques and had considered other suspects until evidence surfaced connecting McGhee and Harrington to the car dealership where Schweer was shot.
“You will hear no credible evidence of frame-ups, coercion, threats of terrorizing witnesses, or kidnapping witnesses,” he said.
He also said he does not believe the assertion of McGhee and Harrington that most of the witnesses against them have recanted. The jury will be asked to decide the facts after hearing the evidence over the next three weeks, he said.