Two Virginia men who, combined, spent nearly 50 years in prison for murder will receive about $1.9 million total in a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve claims of wrongful conviction.
The men, Joseph Eastridge and Joseph Sousa, who were convicted and imprisoned for their alleged roles in a 1974 homicide in Northwest Washington, agreed to dismiss their suit against the government. Eastridge and Sousa sued the government in January 2010 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Under the terms of a settlement, Eastridge will receive about $1.14 million, and Sousa stands to receive $750,000, an attorney for the men said today. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Patrick Regan of Washington’s Regan, Zambri & Long, said the recovery, short of what Eastridge and Sousa were demanding, leaves a “sour taste.”
“The government convicted clearly innocent men and then they fought over how much they owe,” said Regan, who represented the plaintiffs with John Zwerling of Alexandria, Va.’s Zwerling, Leibig & Moseley. “Even at the end, they were trying to take something from these guys.”
DOJ lawyers and attorneys for Eastridge and Sousa were in dispute over whether each former inmate is entitled to $50,000 or $5,000 a year for each year spent behind bars. In 2004, the federal government increased annual compensation for the exonerated from $5,000 to $50,000, and Regan said it was the intent of Congress that the increase be applied retroactively. Regan said that “even $50,000 a year doesn’t make up for their lost freedom.”
A Justice Department spokesman, Charles Miller, declined to comment this afternoon. A DOJ lawyer who worked on the case, Steven Mager of the Civil Division, has declined to speak about the settlement, which was reached in late March.
A D.C. Superior Court jury in 1976 convicted Eastridge and Sousa for first-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of a man named Johnnie Battle. Federal prosecutors alleged a group associated with the Pagans motorcycle gang chased and stabbed Battle in a racially charged confrontation.
Sousa and Eastridge were sentenced to 20 years to life. Sousa spent 20 years in prison before his release on parole. Eastridge was locked up for 29 years before he was released in 2005.
Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and the nonprofit prison advocacy group Centurion Ministries spent nearly two decades investigating Battle’s murder and turned up evidence that prosecutors, at trial, failed to turn over favorable grand jury testimony to the defense lawyers in the case.
The evidence, according to court records, showed that two men allegedly lied to the grand jury about their whereabouts the night of the homicide—information that would have supported the defense theory that Eastridge and Sousa did not kill Battle.
“Illuminated by the light of this new evidence, the fog has lifted,” Judge Rosemary Collyer of Washington federal district court said in a ruling in 2005 in which she granted a petition for habeas corpus. Collyer said no reasonable juror would find Eastridge and Sousa guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The court finds that this is the rare case in which petitioners can prove their ‘actual innocence’ of the crime charged as well as violations of their constitutional rights at trial,” Collyer said.
In 2009, Collyer issued a so-called “certificate of innocence,” giving Eastridge and Sousa a chance to sue the government for monetary damages. Prosecutors initially challenged the ruling, taking the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The government abandoned the appeal.
The estate of a third man who was cleared in the homicide, Michael Diamen, who served 20 years in prison, was not a part of the settlement. The D.C. Circuit in May 2010 upheld Collyer’s ruling denying a certificate of innocence to Diamen, who died in 2002 in custody.