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Ruling may unintentionally help prosecutors

Ruling may unintentionally help prosecutors

June 10, 2013
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin

In the summer of 1986, newlyweds Karen and Dyke Rhoads were found stabbed to death after a crime that climaxed with the bodies and their Paris, Ill., home being destroyed by fire.

As one of the many courts that eventually reviewed this murder case and its subsequent prosecution noted, "From the ashes of these gruesome murders rises another, deeply disturbing allegation: That police and a prosecutor conspired to frame two innocent men of these crimes and over the course of the next two decades, state officials continued to cover up those misdeeds."

One of the many sidebars to this story is an Illinois Supreme Court decision on May 23 that holds that the elected prosecutor sued in this case will not be indemnified by the state.

When it comes to being civil defendants in Section 1983 cases, prosecutors are afforded more protections than law enforcement and other targets of such lawsuits. In fact, they are almost always given immunity from such suits.

But as a result of the ruling in McFatridge et al. v. Lisa M. Madian, No. 113676, there is one area where elected prosecutors are more vulnerable than most potential Section 1983 defendants — though it's a vulnerability that may ultimately aid some elected prosecutors in Illinois.

Michael M. McFatridge was the Edgar County prosecutor that successfully convicted both Gordon "Randy" Steidl and Herbert Whitlock of the Rhoads murders. After long and tortuous litigation, both convictions were eventually overturned — Whitlock's in 2007 by the Illinois Appellate Court and Steidl's in 2003 by a federal court.

What followed were federal civil lawsuits by both exonerated defendants. In the summer of 2007, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals summarized the basis of Steidl's civil claim: "[McFatridge] ignored evidence that would have demonstrated Steidl's innocence, including especially a credible lead pointing to an influential Paris [b]usinessman … and based [the] case against Steidl on the coerced testimony of two unstable witnesses … no one turned over any exculpatory evidence against Steidl throughout his appeal or post-conviction proceeding. Some of the available evidence would have shredded the state's case … "

The civil litigation continued unabated and included two interlocutory appeals, until a watershed ruling by the 7th Circuit in the spring of 2012 that erased any doubt that McFatridge was not going to be protected by prosecutorial immunity for his alleged role in the alleged framing of Steidl and Whitlock.

In that case, Judge Diane P. Wood, who had also written the 2007 opinion, characterized the totality of the litigation in this manner: "It has been nearly 25 years since Steidl and Whitlock were convicted of the Rhodeses' homicides. If their claims are true, a grave and nearly unbelievable miscarriage of justice occurred in Paris, Ill[.] … We find no reason to delay their day in court … any further."

Steidl had his day in court in the form of a consent judgment, awarding a total of $6 million against multiple defendants. In March, Whitlock settled for an amount that was not publicly disclosed. Of the $6 million to Steidl, $1.65 million came in the form of an assignment of McFatridge's indemnification claim against Illinois Attorney General Lisa M. Madigan.

While Steidl and Whitlock battled first the Edgar County prosecutors in criminal proceedings and then the attorneys representing the Edgar County prosecutors in civil proceedings for more than a quarter-century, McFatridge and Edgar County were battling the Illinois attorney general for nearly a decade trying to get indemnification pursuant to a state statute that allows the attorney general to represent elected officials.

After its own torturous road through litigation with ups and downs, the question of whether the state would pay McFatridge's attorney fees was decided by a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court. That court said "the plain language" of the state's indemnity statute allows the state to decline to represent a prosecutor where "the claim is for intentional, willful or wanton misconduct."

The practical result of the ruling, however, is that Steidl appears to be out the $1.65 million he had hoped to collect if McFatridge prevailed.

While it's unclear if McFatridge himself is worse off because of this ruling, other prosecutors may end up better off. It is the federal fee-shifting statute that provides much of the incentive for plaintiff attorneys to bring Section 1983 cases against prosecutors. Obviously in a case such as Steidl's where nearly two decades of his life was lost to wrongful conviction, the fee shifting was much less of an incentive. But most cases brought are do not involve such large damages.

Given that most claims against prosecutors will only survive immunity in very limited circumstances that must necessarily include intentional or willful and wanton conduct and given that they will not be indemnified for attorney fees for such conduct — including, likely, the fees of plaintiff's counsel — this case may ultimately prove to be a disincentive to plaintiff's counsels when considering whether or not to sue elected prosecutors.

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