Acting Atty. Gen. Peter Nickles
Acting Atty. Gen. Peter Nickles

D.C. AG Peter Nickles has reached a settlement in one of the two remaining Pershing Park cases. The deal, which came together last night, includes a District payout of approximately $8.25 million to the roughly 400 plaintiffs in the Barham class action lawsuit.

The deal mirrors the recent settlement in the historic Becker case in which demonstrators had alleged false arrest and mistreatment by D.C. Police. Like the Becker case, the plaintiffs in this Pershing Park case would receive about $18,000 each.

The plaintiffs in the Pershing Park case had alleged that on Sept. 27, 2002, they were rounded up in the park, falsely arrested as well as improperly and needless detained. You can read their original compliant [PDF].

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder and attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, believes the settlement is a clear statement against police misconduct. She tells City Desk:  “This settlement sends an unmistakable message to law enforcement agencies throughout the country: think twice before shredding and subverting core constitutional rights.”

The settlement includes much more than the $8.25 million District payout. It addresses the problems that have dogged this case long after the Sept. 27 mass arrests: the missing and or/destroyed evidence and the OAG and MPD General Counsel’s embarrassing delays in handing over thousands of pages of relevant documents.

We will have more on this very soon.

The settlement stipulates that D.C. Police Department and the Office of the Attorney General must take steps to insure that similar discovery abuses do not happen in the future. The District has agreed to several such steps:

*The D.C. Police Department and the Office of the Attorney General centrally log and index all materials connected in future mass demonstration cases.

*The District must fund a document management computer system that would log evidence.

*The District must safeguard and index and maintain D.C. Police Department command center documents and other essential materials such as the running resume, radio dispatches, and video evidence.

*Every six months for three years, the District must issue reports on its progress in these areas to Partnership for Civil Justice attorneys.

*The District must expunge the records for the more 1,000 people arrested in the Pershing Park and Becker cases.

There still remains one Pershing Park case—-the Chang case—-on the federal docket. Nickles had promised to settle that case as well.

Still one issue question remains unanswered: What happened to the missing running resume, the minute-by-minute accounting by police of their actions on Sept. 27, and the gaps in the radio dispatches turned over to plaintiffs?

For the last few years, the substance of the plaintiffs’ complaint was never much in dispute. OAG lawyers and the plaintiffs attorneys filed motion after motion arguing over the missing evidence. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan compared the District’s lawyers in the Pershing Park cases to the prosecutors in the Ted Stevens case. Sullivan essentially shamed Nickles for the OAG’s conduct.

Early this month, Ret. Judge Stanley Sporkin issued his report on the missing evidence. Sporkin suggested that the running resume may have been destroyed on purpose. He called for an outside expert to review the radio tapes.

Plaintiffs attorneys in Barham first exposed the missing evidence and went a long way towards documenting the OAG’s bungling and the missteps in the MPD’s general counsel office. They found and deposed critical witnesses and thoroughly embarrassed city attorneys. Their own evidence gathering went well beyond the D.C. Council’s investigation and the Pershing Park related lawsuits. It is unclear what more they could have dug up. There are limits to civil litigation.

Councilmember Mary Cheh and Police Union Chief Kristopher Baumann have called for federal law enforcement to open up an investigation.

“I think it’s going to be very important that the department and the attorney general’s office and the general counsel’s office not be allowed to buy their way out of whatever inappropriate non-ethical actions they’ve taken,” Baumann tells City Desk today. “I still think that it’s critical that the Department of Justice conduct a criminal investigation. I don’t see how we can repair our reputation with the public or the courts without such an investigation. Clearly there are attorneys and high ranking officials that have violated the law—-that should lose their jobs, lose their law licenses and possibly go to jail.”

The plaintiffs lawyers in the Chang case have a filed motion asking for such federal involvement.

It is now up to Judge Sullivan to make the next move.  The next hearing in the Chang case is this Thursday.

Read our interview with two plaintiffs about the settlement.

*photo by Darrow Montgomery.