by Mark Morris and Russ Pulley, The Kansas City Star
A former Lee’s Summit man celebrated Friday when a jury awarded him $16 million, ruling that his ex-wife and a police officer conspired to violate his fair-trial rights.
“I’d waited 10 years for that moment,” said Theodore W. White Jr. ”You have no idea what it’s like to be vindicated for something you were accused of 10 years ago.”
White, who has moved to Aurora, Mo., spent more than five years in state prison on a child molestation conviction before a jury finally acquitted him· in 2005. Those jurors learned that the investigating officer, Richard McKinley, and White’s wife, Tina, had become romantically involved.
Former prosecutors acknowledged recently that they knew that McKinley and White’s wife had seen each other socially before the first trial, but they did not disclose it to defense lawyers, because they were told it was a one-time meeting for drinks or dinner.
In fact, the two were planning to marry.
Lawyers for White also have argued that McKinley read, but intentionally neglected to seize, the alleged victim’s· diary, which
could have proved critical to White’s defense at his first trial. The diary later could not be located.
McKinley still works as a police officer in Lee’s Summit, which could be responsible for paying most of the judgment.
White hugged his lawyers and family members when federal jurors announced their initial verdict of $14 million in actual damages Friday morning.
“I’m most thankful,” he said. “I believe in the system. The only way you can get vindication is to go back through the system.”
This was White’s fourth experience with a jury. After the first jury convicted him in 1999, he fled to Costa Rica, but he was arrested there after “America’s Most Wanted” featured his story. He won an appeal, but a second jury hung up 11-1 for acquittal. The third jury freed him.
Testifying Friday about his finances before federal jurors began considering punitive damages, McKinley said he had no remorse because he had done nothing wrong.
“Everyone who knows this investigation knows it was right,” McKinley said sharply. “This is a sham.” He then left the courtroom and was not present when jurors returned with a $2 million punitive judgment.
Except for her own testimony, Tina McKinley did not attend the two-week trial. She had partly settled her part of the case earlier for $600,000 but remained as a defendant, lawyers said.
Brian McCallister, one of White’s lawyers, said police agencies should look closely at the verdicts. “It’s a resounding message to law enforcement that they need to clean up their act,” he said.
James Ensz, who represented McKinley, said he needed to review his options.
‘We have some appeal issues,” Ensz said. ‘We’re disappointed… both on actual damages and punitive damages.”
The city of Lee’s Summit settled its part of the case in 2006 by agreeing to cover any judgments against McKinley after its insurance carriers had paid. Mayor Karen Messerli said the city could be paying a substantial sum from taxpayer’s dollars.
“It’s a devastating verdict. We’re going to have to assess all our options,” Messerli said, adding that the city would begin reassessing its programs, to prepare for possible obligations.
A pretrial agreement between Lee’s Summit and White holds the city responsible for actual damages, less any amount White collects from insurance companies.
Exactly how that will affect the city’s liability will be unclear until all appeals are concluded and all insurance claims have been paid, said city attorney Robert Handley.
‘We are working with two insurance carriers to confirm the amount of insurance available,” he said in a written statement. “One carrier has acknowledged limited coverage. The other has denied coverage, and the city has retained outside counsel to help with the matter. At this
time, the total amount is in dispute.”
Lawyers close to the case said that city insurance money available to cover the judgments could be as little as $360,000. The city of Lee’s Summit has a general fund budget of $55 million.
There were several efforts to settle the case. Just before trial, McCallister floated an offer of about $11 million, but was countered with a $1.3 million offer.
During the trial, an economist testifying for White said that he had suffered economic damages and incurred legal fees of more than $1.6 million since he began fighting the case in 1998.
Even as jury selection began, both sides considered settling the case for $4 million, but that deal also fell through.
“They keep telling you to have faith in the system,” White said. Today the system worked.”