DES MOINES - After three weeks of testimony and arguments, the wrongful conviction case involving Council Bluffs, two retired police detectives and two black men from Omaha was handed to jurors Friday.
Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were convicted in a 1977 murder, sentenced to life in prison but later released after the courts concluded they had been wrongfully convicted. Harrington and McGhee sued for millions of dollars, claiming their constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated. The case is being decided in U.S. District Court in Des Moines.
The men were accused of killing John Schweer, a retired police captain who had taken a job as a security guard at a Council Bluffs car dealership. Harrington and McGhee claim retired Council Bluffs police officers Dan Larsen and Lyle Brown coerced witnesses into lying during the 1978 trial and hid evidence of another suspect. They claim the detectives used threats against a group of young car theft suspects, all black, to trump up evidence, targeting them because of their race.
Harrington and McGhee were freed in 2003 after the Iowa Supreme Court found prosecutors committed misconduct.
Pottawattamie County later agreed to pay $12 million to settle claims against two former prosecutors while not admitting wrongdoing, but the settlement did not resolve claims against Council Bluffs and former detectives Larsen and Brown.
Harrington and McGhee are seeking around $60 million each from the city and the officers. Harrington's attorney, Gerry Spence, told jurors in his closing argument Friday that anything smaller would not be full justice.
"This is a case that will be in the records forever. What you do will be here forever. You have to power to change it. Create a monument to this kind of horror," he said.
The city of Council Bluffs disputed allegations that the investigators framed McGhee and Harrington and contended the officers had enough evidence to take the case to prosecutors and lead to convictions in two separate trials.
David Baker, who represented Larsen and Brown, said the officers were determined to find who killed Schweer and it makes no sense that they would try to frame someone else and let the real killer go free.
Council Bluffs had insurance policies to cover against lawsuits and other liabilities, but courts have held that policies from two of the city's insurers contained exclusions that relieved them from paying obligations. The city has appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arguments are set for Dec. 12 in St. Paul, Minn.
The courts have said a third insurer also does not have to pay because its policy covered a time period outside of when the men were charged.
Without coverage, the city will be responsible for paying if jurors return a verdict against it. State law allows cities to impose a special tax to raise enough money to pay such judgments.
City officials and attorneys involved have declined to discuss the potential tax liability or how the city would proceed if a judgment is returned against it.