A federal judge has refused to dismiss civil rights and malicious prosecution claims detailed in a lawsuit from a man who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein’s Monday order affirmed recommendations from a magistrate judge who dismissed motions from King County and the city of Bothell that sought to dismiss Ian Simmers’ federal civil rights and state tort claims alleging police framed him in a fatal 1995 stabbing.
The motions alleged Simmers’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations, among other legal hurdles surrounding his allegations that detectives coerced his confession, manufactured evidence and influenced a jailhouse snitch who testified that the then-16-year-old Simmers confessed to the brutal crime.
Simmers was exonerated and released from custody in 2019 after he presented new DNA evidence and other information that cast doubts on his conviction in the death of 35-year-old Rodney Gochanour.
Faced with the likelihood of having to retry a two-decade-old case, the King County Prosecutor’s Office agreed to dismiss the case and asked that Simmers be released from prison.
Simmers, now 44, sued the city of Bothell, King County and several of the officers and detectives involved in the investigation, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment protections against illegal seizure, malicious prosecution, negligence, manufacturing of false evidence and withholding exculpatory evidence.
The county and city filed motions to dismiss the various civil claims – 13 in all – arguing that officers could not have known in 1995 how their investigative techniques might elicit a false confession from a juvenile, and that various statutes of limitation and legal hurdles resulting from Simmers’ 1996 confession and conviction barred pursuing a lawsuit against them now.
They also argued the involved officers were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects them from being sued if they acted in good faith.
Chief Magistrate Judge Richard Creatura in early July recommended that the allegations based in state law, including claims that detectives fabricated evidence, be dismissed with a possible option of being reinstated in later proceedings.
While federal judges routinely adopt a magistrate judge’s so-called “report and recommendations” without changes, Rothstein rejected several of Creatura’s recommendations that some of the allegations be dismissed. Instead, she dismissed entirely Simmers’ state law claims for civil outrage and negligence but declined to dismiss the rest of his allegations.
King County, through a spokesperson, issued a statement pointing out that the state has a Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act that provides for $50,000 per year for every year an individual is incarcerated if they are later shown to be innocent.
Under that formula, Simmers could have been eligible for a payment of $1.15 million.
“Rather than pursue this avenue of relief, Mr. Simmers has filed suit against the police. The actions of police are appropriately subject to scrutiny, but the evidence here does not support Mr. Simmers’ untested allegations,” the statement said. “The District Court’s ruling dismisses several of Mr. Simmers’ claims as legally baseless.
“King County will continue its defense of its law enforcement officers based on the evidence as this matter proceeds with further litigation.”
Simmers’ attorneys and the lawyers representing the city of Bothell and its officers did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Bothell police officers and county sheriff’s deputies kept Simmers, who was 16 at the time, in custody for 10 hours overnight, refused to let him speak to his mother or an attorney, used “manipulative and coercive interrogation tactics” and “fed (him) details about the crime in an effort to force and fabricate a confession.”
The complaint also accuses law enforcement officials of pinning the killing on Simmers even though “no forensic evidence whatsoever tied (him) to the crime and no witnesses identified him as the culprit.”
The lawsuit claims that to overcome these investigatory deficits, police and deputies solicited false testimony from another juvenile and coached and arranged payments to a jailhouse snitch for testimony that was later used to convict Simmers of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 46 years and eight months in prison.
During his trial, prosecutors alleged Simmers and a friend confronted Gochanour walking home on the Burke-Gilman Trail in Bothell after drinking in a tavern.
Prosecutors claimed that Simmers slashed Gochanour with a knife after Gochanour hit him in the ribs. When Gochanour turned away, police claimed Simmers stabbed him at least six times in the back. His body was found the next day, and a kitchen knife, the murder weapon, was found in nearby bushes.
There was no evidence that Simmers had handled the bloody weapon, according to documents.
Police described the murder as a thrill-kill and never offered any other motive. The lawsuit alleges detectives failed to investigate other leads, including an angry ex-boyfriend of Gochanour’s girlfriend, or talk to several people to whom he owed money.
Prosecutors’ main piece of evidence was a taped confession Simmers made to police, though Simmers’ attorney noted several discrepancies in the statement, including the size of the knife and the day of the killing, and alleged detectives fed details to the teen to push him to confess.
Moreover, Simmers’ mother, stepfather and stepbrother testified that he had been at home in bed when Gochanour was stabbed to death, according to Seattle Times articles about the killing.
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