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December 14, 2011

DC jury awards $2.3 million to man imprisoned a decade after wrongful parole revocation

As reported in this post at The BLT, a federal jury "awarded a Washington man $2.3 million in damages on Monday for the 10 years he spent in prison after his parole was wrongfully revoked." Here are the basics:

Charles Singletary was released on parole in 1990 after serving seven years in jail for an armed robbery conviction.  In July 1996, however, the District of Columbia Board of Parole -- a body that no longer exists -- revoked his parole and re-imprisoned Singletary after he was accused of being involved in a murder.

After several failed attempts to challenge the revocation in Washington's local and federal courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with Singletary in 2006, finding that he had been denied due process at his parole-revocation hearing.  Singletary sued the city (PDF) in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2009.

In August, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson found that the District was liable for the violation of Singletary’s constitutional rights.  The trial on damages began Dec. 6.  The jury began deliberating on Monday and returned a verdict in the afternoon.

“We think that it fairly compensates Mr. Singletary for what was a terrible wrong and we were happy with the decisions along the way,” said Edward Sussman, a Washington solo practitioner and one of Singletary’s attorneys.  “It’s 10 years of a man’s life and unfortunately the only thing we have to give back is money.”

Singletary’s 10-year quest for justice began with his arrest in 1995 for the murder of Leroy Houtman. Singletary, who denied any involvement with the murder, was never indicted and the charges were dropped. In July 1996, according to the complaint, the D.C. Board of Parole held a hearing to decide whether to revoke Singletary’s parole from the earlier armed robbery case.

The board heard what was later determined to be hearsay evidence linking Singletary to the murder. His parole was revoked in August 1996 and he was sent back to jail. According to the complaint, Singletary “was subjected to harsh living conditions” and, because of inadequate medical treatment, went blind from untreated glaucoma.

Singletary first filed a challenge to this parole revocation in Superior Court in 1997, which was denied and upheld on appeal to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. He tried again in 2000 in the same courts, unsuccessfully. Later in 2000, Singletary petitioned unsuccessfully for a writ of habeas corpus in Washington federal court. He appealed.

In July 2006, the D.C. Circuit reversed the District court’s denial of Singletary’s petition. The appeals court found that the board relied on testimony from police and a prosecutor that was based on hearsay reports from two individuals without first-hand knowledge of the crime.

“Yet though the government is not required to carry a heavy burden in such proceedings, it cannot return a parolee to prison based on a record as shoddy as this one,” the appellate judges wrote in their opinion (PDF).   By the time Singletary had a new parole-revocation hearing in October 2006, the duties of the D.C. Board of Parole had been transferred to the U.S. Parole Commission. The commission found that there was no evidence linking Singletary to the murder and released Singletary the following month.

Singletary sued the city in April 2009, seeking $20 million in damages.

While there are many interesting elements of this story that merit commentary, I would be especially interested to hear reader reactions to the amount of the jury damages award.  

My first reaction to the jury award was that $2.3 million for 10 years in prison is a pretty good pay-day: in this lean economy, I suspect some people might be excited about the prospect of "working" in prison for a $230,000 annual salary (even if we think of the imprisoned as working 24/7, that still works out to an hourly rate of more than $25/hour for all the time spent in prison).  And yet, thinking about the award as an offer, I suspect few if any would accept an offer of $2.3 million in order to spend the next 10 years in prison.   (That said, I suspect more than a few persons might seriously consider an offer of $20 million -- what Singletary sought in damages -- for a decade behind bars.)

One follow-up question (which I will pose to Paul Caron at TaxProf): Does Singletary now get to enjoy this $2.3 million award free from all federal and local taxes?  I believe that there has been some new rules and litigation of late concerning what parts of a compensatory tort award are still tax-free, and this case and the general damages verdict rended by the jury here could present an interesting set of issues concerning the nature of the harm(s) Singletary suffered from his wrongful imprisonment.

December 14, 2011 at 08:54 AM | Permalink

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Comments

My first reaction to this is that the guy went blind during this time frame and no amount of money can right that wrong.

Posted by: elisabeth | Dec 14, 2011 9:22:02 AM

$230,000 for 1 year, maybe; $2.3 million for 10 years + blindness, no way (esp after lawyer fees and possibly taxes!)

The perception is prison is nice - food, work out, etc. But the classic work on prison reminds us that there is a deprivation of freedom; deprivation of autonomy (the many rules in prison reduce inmates to a childlike status - and no arguing about the rules); deprivation of goods and services; deprivation of security (in prison with criminals); and deprivation of heterosexual relations (+ some coercion to be involved in homosexual ones).

The point is not 'poor prisoners' but that even without deductions for lawyer's fees and taxes this is hardly a generous settlement for 10 years of deprivations and all the life and family experiences he missed.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 14, 2011 9:22:30 AM

Maybe he shouldn;t have committed armed robbery in the first place. That doesn't justify a "shoddy" parole hearing, but it certainly dims my sympathy. In a sane criminal justice system 17 years is just about right for armed robbery.

His victim should get some of the payday.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 14, 2011 10:21:14 AM

Among all the states and the District of Columbia, only Texas has enacted a statutory scheme to compensate wrongfully imprisoned people who are eventually exonerated. A big part of the formula included in the Texas statutes depends on the length of the incarceration. It would be interesting to take Mr. Singleton's situation and plug it into the Texas compensation statutes to see what the value would be compared to the $2.3 million he was awarded by the D.C. jury. I am also curious about whether the District will have to pay this judgment out of tax revenues, or whether, like many jurisdictions, they have insurance coverage that will pay the judgment. Having served 8 years in Federal prison myself and having missed the most formative years of my daughter's life, I do not think $2.3 million is enough (and I didn't even go blind from untreated glaucoma, like Mr. Singleton). I wonder if Mr. Singleton has a separate claim ("deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of an inmate) against the prison system for failing to treat his glaucoma, leading to his blindness.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Dec 14, 2011 11:14:43 AM

@paul: you missed the point.
As to the monetary award. What's worth more, I would ask: 2.3 million or having your eyesight?

Posted by: F. Valcarcel | Dec 14, 2011 12:19:24 PM

hey fed why don't you use your payday to buy a HEART! the man based on bullshit lier testemony LOST HIS SIGHT! NOTHING will make up for that!

what i'm wonddering is where are the ARREST WARRENTS for the assholes who cost him TEN YEARS of his LIFE and HIS SIGHT! on what has now been ruled an ILLEGAL DETENTION!

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 14, 2011 5:57:56 PM

RodS:

There should be no penalties for ignorance, arrogance, insombulance, flatulance, mental imbalance or incompetance if you are on the "right" side of the law.

The LAW which is often an ASS and a FULL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY!

Posted by: albeed | Dec 14, 2011 10:11:21 PM

Is false imprisonment a physical harm? Tax free.

Is it a dignitary harm? Taxable.

The IRS would demand, show us your physical injury.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 15, 2011 9:00:16 AM

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