Traffic stop death fueled review of Law Department
By: Stacy St. Clair, Jeff Coen & Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune: June 3rd, 2016
A wrongful death lawsuit that helped spark an ongoing review of how the city’s Law Department handles cases involving allegations of serious police misconduct has been settled before a scheduled retrial, according to court records and lawyers.
The lawsuit brought by the family of Darius Pinex had been scheduled to go back before a federal jury July 18, but the city and Pinex’s family have agreed to a mediator’s proposal on monetary damages. Pinex was fatally shot by two police officers during a traffic stop in 2011. The first trial had concluded with a jury finding in favor of the city and the officers.
But the case erupted into controversy in January when U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang ordered a new trial and found that Jordan Marsh, then a Law Department lawyer, had intentionally withheld crucial evidence. Marsh resigned, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired longtime Chicago lawyer Dan Webb to conduct a third-party review of the department.
The terms of the settlement were not immediately made public, but attorney fees awarded to the plaintiff because of wrongdoing by city attorneys were alone expected to top $1 million. The City Council must still approve.
Steve Greenberg, the lawyer for the Pinex family, noted how the city has been challenged by recent police misconduct cases.
“It wasn’t about the money. It was about teaching a lesson,” Greenberg said of the lawsuit. “All people have a right to be treated with respect by officers, and this case more than most sends a message, hopefully a message of honesty and change.”
A spokesman for the Law Department declined to comment on the settlement.
The agreement ending the case comes just two days after Chang shredded the city’s arguments for why two constitutional claims in the lawsuit — including for unlawful arrest — should be thrown out before the retrial.
In taking the rare action of striking the city’s motion for summary judgment from the record, the judge said a reasonable jury could conclude that officers Gildardo Sierra and Raul Mosqueda “lied and covered up” their reasons for stopping Pinex’s car the night of the shooting.
Chang wrote in his four-page order that the officers had given inconsistent statements about an emergency dispatch they allegedly heard describing Pinex’s Oldsmobile as wanted in an earlier shooting. When the recording finally was produced at trial in April 2015 — after years of city lawyers denying it existed — there was no mention of a shooting or a gun, the judge said.
Chang said a jury could “reasonably reject the lawfulness of the stop.”
Sierra and Mosqueda had said the dispatch led them to conduct a high-risk stop of the car, boxing it in to prevent its occupants from fleeing and approaching with their guns drawn.
The officers alleged Pinex put the car in reverse and disobeyed commands to stop, ejecting his passenger, Matthew Colyer. Both officers fired shots, with Mosqueda fatally shooting Pinex in the head. A gun was recovered from the car.
Just last month, Sierra, who resigned from the department in 2015, told Chang he intended to testify at the retrial despite danger of incriminating himself.
The Tribune has previously reported on Sierra’s involvement in three shootings, two of them fatal, during a six-month span. In the other fatal shooting, captured on a police dashboard camera, Sierra fired 16 shots at Flint Farmer, including three into his back as he lay prone on the ground. Sierra said he mistook a cellphone for a gun. The city settled a lawsuit by Farmer’s family for $4.1 million.
Chang’s criticism of Marsh centered on the dispatch the officers claimed to have heard that supposedly called attention to a car similar to the one Pinex was driving. Each officer told the jury at the first trial that he had heard a radio alert and stopped Pinex, believing the car could be connected to an earlier shooting.
It turned out the pair could not have heard such a dispatch because the alert went out over a radio zone different from the one they were operating in.
During the first trial, Marsh told Chang outside the jury’s presence that he had located the actual alert that went out over the zone the officers were in on the night in question. That call did not connect a car matching Pinex’s to another shooting.
Chang found that Marsh intentionally kept the evidence from him. Marsh had first told the judge he had found the recording that day and later said he actually found it a week before the trial began. Another city attorney, Thomas Aumann, who also has left the department, was chided by the judge as well for not making a reasonable effort to find the recording before a jury was hearing the case.
Webb’s review has included interviews of dozens of lawyers who handle such cases, and a review of the practices of the department. No timetable for the release of Webb’s findings has been made public.