Two men who spent a combined nearly 50 years in prison for a stabbing death in Northwest Washington that a judge later found the men didn't commit are suing the federal government for damages for unjust imprisonment.
The former inmates, Joseph Eastridge and Joseph Sousa, whose suit is expected to be filed this week in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, say they are entitled to monetary damages since a federal judge issued a “certificate of innocence” that absolved the men of their alleged roles in the 1976 murder of Johnnie Battle.
In 2005, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a habeas petition filed by Eastridge and Sousa and declared the men innocent of first-degree murder. Collyer granted a certificate of innocence in March 2009. The certificate is a necessary prerequisite to pursue a damages claim against the government for wrongful conviction.
Patrick Regan and John Zwerling, lawyers for Eastridge and Sousa, said in the suit that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory information at the time of the murder trial in D.C. Superior Court. The information included grand jury testimony that undercut the government’s theory that Eastridge and Sousa directly participated in killing Battle. (The murder had racial underpinnings. The accused defendants, who are white and former members of the Pagan motorcycle club, were charged with killing Battle, a black man, during a fight.)
For decades, according to the suit, the government “routinely and repeatedly refused to disclose this exculpatory material despite plaintiffs’ numerous requests.”
Regan of Washington’s Regan, Zambri & Long and Zwerling of Zwerling, Leibig & Moseley in Alexandria, Va., said Eastridge is entitled to a minimum of $1.5 million, according to federal law, for the time he spent incarcerated. Sousa, the lawyers said, is owed a minimum of $1 million.
“These men were the victim of an overzealous prosecution in a racially charged atmosphere. Even when the government knew that it had imprisoned innocent men, they refused to disclose the evidence and dragged out the legal proceedings for 15 years,” Regan said. “These two innocent gentlemen spent over 50 years total in the most horrific prisons in the country and the time has come for the government to do the right thing. They lost virtually their entire adult lives while they were imprisoned.”
A third man who was convicted in the murder, Michael Damien, died in prison in 2002 and is not named as a plaintiff. Collyer did not grant Damien a certificate of innocence. Regan and Zwerling, who represent Damien's estate, are fighting for a second chance at a certificate in a case that is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Government lawyers are opposed to a certificate, saying that, among other things, Damien’s conviction has never been reversed or set aside. The appeals court had planned to hear Damien’s case Jan. 22 but postponed argument to allow the parties to pursue a settlement.