DETROIT (AP) — The city of Detroit has been ordered to pay $1.1 million to a young man who was rousted out of bed as a 14-year-old, charged with murder, and held in a violent juvenile lockup for nearly two years before being acquitted of a fatal shooting in his neighborhood.
Caleb Sosa, now 19, claimed police violated his civil rights by coercing him to put his initials on a confession that he couldn't even read. The allegations in his lawsuit were never tested, however, because the case ended in an extraordinary way. A judge declared a default when city lawyers failed the most basic procedural step: They never filed a timely answer in court.
"The judge found that mistakes were made," acknowledged Krystal Crittendon, the head of Detroit's law department.
Sosa's attorney, Ronnie Cromer Jr., believes he had a strong case and could have persuaded a jury to award even more money if the lawsuit over police tactics had gone to trial. Nonetheless, it's an embarrassing result for a city that is nearly broke and typically pays out more than $20 million a year in legal claims.
The lawyer who botched the case no longer works for Detroit.
"That's flat-out malpractice," said Deborah Gordon, an attorney who regularly sues local governments. "Municipalities should be sophisticated and responsible to deal with this stuff. Even if you're overwhelmed with work, you cannot allow a default. Get a calendar."
The lawsuit centered on how Detroit police arrested and interrogated Sosa after a sensational murder in 2007. A 13-year-old on the southwest side was fatally shot in the middle of the night, the unintended victim of a gang feud. Another person who was shot and survived identified Sosa as the masked gunman.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sosa said he was asleep and wearing only pajama pants when an officer entered his bedroom to take him away for an interview. He was released but picked up again a month later.
"They're telling me, 'You killed somebody.' I kept telling them over and over again: I had nothing to do with it," Sosa said this week.
"I did not know how to read. I did not know how to write. As far as a confession, I had no idea what it was," he said. "Police told me to sign right here and you can go home. I didn't even know how to put my initials. I asked them to show me how to write a 'C' and a 'V' and an 'S.'"
Sosa was charged with first-degree murder. The first trial ended without a unanimous verdict. Worn down by his time in custody and fearing a life sentence, Sosa was close to pleading guilty before a second trial in exchange for a 15-year prison term.
"I saw it as a way out," he explained. "I grabbed a pen. I looked at my mom. I barely put down the first letter of my name. I dropped the pen. I looked at the judge's face and said, 'I cannot sign this paper.'"
His second trial in 2009 ended with an acquittal. After 631 days in custody, Sosa went home. No one else has been charged in the slaying.
Cromer filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2010, accusing Detroit police of creating a phony confession and covering up evidence that would have helped Sosa. The lawsuit was amended in 2011 and hand-delivered to the city's law department. But city attorney Jane Mills never filed a formal response in federal court.
Cromer, frustrated by the inaction, asked U.S. District Judge Sean Cox to declare the city in default. Cox agreed, saying, "This is not a case involving excusable neglect."
In September, Cox awarded $1.1 million to the young man and $80,380 to his mother. The case still is pending while lawyers work out a 40-year schedule of payments to Sosa.
Mills, who now works for a law firm, declined to comment. Crittendon, head of the Detroit law department, declined to say whether Mills quit or was fired. She also declined to discuss how the Sosa case was managed.
No matter how he won the lawsuit, Sosa hopes the public doesn't lose sight of his innocence and his time in a juvenile lockup. He said he was repeatedly beaten by inmates much older than him and suffered a dislocated jaw, broken ribs and other injuries.
His mother, Amparo Hernandez-Sosa, said she often parked her minivan outside the detention center and flashed the headlights to wish her son a good night.
"I was 14. I was a baby," Sosa told the AP. "This is a scar inside my head and inside my heart. ... I got arrested for a crime I did not commit. They grabbed me and put the blame on me."
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Lawless America...The Movie is all about exposing the fact that we now live in Lawless America. We no longer have laws that are enforced because judges do whatever they want to do. America has also become lawless because government officials are dishonest and/or corrupt.
The movie will expose corruption in every state. The Movie will focus on victims. Corrupt judges and corrupt government officials will be exposed, and we will confront a number of the crooks.
If anyone has ever questioned the story of a person who has expressed the view that they were a victim of the government or of judges, this movie will prove that the odds are that the corruption report was true. In fact, there are probably tens of millions of victims in the United States who never realized what happened to them.
One feature length documentary movie is being produced. It will be shown in theaters, on Netflix, Blockbuster, and other such video places, and the movie will be presented at the Sundance Film Festival and other film festivals.
In addition, videos will be produced for each state and for each type of corruption. Everyone who is interviewed for the film will record a three-minute segment that will be done as testimony before Congress as well as a 30-60 minute on-camera interview with Bill Windsor, founder of LawlessAmerica.com and GRIP, and candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislators in each state will receive the testimony from those in their state, and the members of the U.S. House and Senate will receive all of the testimony nationwide.
Over 1,500 people are already scheduled to be interviewed for the movie. We will continue to accept as many requests as possible.
The 50-state road trip is planned to take 174 days. Here is the itinerary for Lawless America...the Movie. The road trip starts in Atlanta and heads North and travels counterclockwise around the country. Upon the return to Atlanta, Bill Windsor will fly to Hawaii and Alaska and will spend one day in Olympia Washington and Portland Oregon.
All filming will be done either at the State Capitol, at a courthouse in the state capital, in a meeting room near the Capitol, or at a nearby hotel. For those who are unable to travel to the capital, you can still appear in the videos by recording your own video or by being interviewed on camera by Bill Windsor using a webcam and Skype. Webcams are available on loan to those who need one for their interview.
It is our plan that this movie can educate many, many people about the reality that America is broken. We will expose many corrupt judges and government officials. We hope to generate a lot of publicity about corruption that the mainstream media usually hides from the public.
We will deliver proposed judicial reform legislation to the governor and legislators at each state Capitol.
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