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Light of Justice 

Federal judge agrees to take another look at secret deal in Inglewood brutality case

Thursday, Feb 12 2004
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Weeks later, Surjue’s attorneys faxed her an agreement, which contained a clause ordering her not to talk about her case in public or in private. If anyone asked, she was to reply, “the case was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all parties,” according to the standard language in Inglewood agreements. Surjue refused to sign. Forced silence was but one of her reasons. She wanted Inglewood officials exposed so that her children could have faith in the legal system, she said. And she wanted the public to see what Morse had done to her.

When Surjue refused to sign, the city refused to pay her — or her lawyers. Mann, of the firm Mann & Cook, and Anderson-Barker then asked Otero to enforce the settlement, “as swiftly and as privately as possible,” according to documents filed in federal court on January 15. A frequent mantra of plaintiffs’ lawyers, when questioned about settling cases rather than going to trial, is that they are obligated primarily to satisfy their client. And although Mann and Anderson-Barker asked Otero to strike the confidentiality clause, their request showed a persistent desire for a quiet, speedy resolution, which at the time was against Surjue’s wishes. In fact, when contacted, Surjue did not even know they had filed such a motion with the court.

 

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Inglewood’s attorneys Rupert Byrdsong and Rickey Ivie, a candidate for State Assembly, responded by criticizing Surjue for talking to the Weekly, according to a motion filed in federal court on January 15. Then they tried to get her lawyers fired. “Surjue’s attorneys seek to enforce a settlement requiring [Surjue’s] signature, when she does not want to sign the said agreement,” Byrdsong wrote. “As [Surjue] and her counsel are in an adversarial position, [counsel] must be disqualified from representing [Surjue].”

A week later Otero ordered a hearing on February 17 to either “execute a written settlement or try the matter.” The judge also specified that, “any settlements entered into by the parties should be a matter of public record.” Which experts agree is the appropriate way to handle a police misconduct case.

Civil rights lawsuits can be important in showing a pattern of misconduct by officers and their superiors, according to former police commissioner and civil rights lawyer Melanie Lomax. “Civil trials analyze the quality of command decisions at the scene, and they benefit those trying to rectify police misconduct,” Lomax says, pointing to a $3.8 million jury verdict in the Rodney King beating, in 1994, and a $15 million settlement in the Rampart scandal, in 2001. “Money damages and the information that comes out of civil actions send a message. They are weapons that must be invoked when the criminal justice system has failed.”

Cooley says he doubts the Justice Department’s investigation of Morse in the Jackson case will result in a conviction, after his office was stymied by two hung juries. “They’re probably going to conclude they can’t do much better than we did and let it ride,” he said Monday. “When it comes to a wide variety of misconduct by police officers, it’s not criminal in nature, it’s basically personnel matters.”

Yet the possibility of the feds broadly investigating police misconduct and the failure of the Inglewood Police Department to rectify it depends on what kind of evidence turns up in the Jackson case, according to Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. And civil rights lawsuits like Surjue’s “should shed light on what’s going on in the department,” Levenson says.

“The city has a responsibility to remedy conduct that exposes it to liability,” Lomax adds. “A federal investigation could connect the dots.”

With a closer look at the Inglewood force and a federal judge who is willing to give Surjue her day in court, perhaps her cries for justice will have new meaning.

The Inglewood Docket

In addition to the Surjue and Jackson cases, here are some other lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court against the city of Inglewood and Jeremy Morse:

Neilson G. Williams v. Inglewood. Williams charges Morse with choking him after he was beaten about his head, face and body, on June 23, 2002. He was left in a coma. After he complained to the department, police charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol. Trial is scheduled next year.

Anthony Rowe v. Inglewood. Morse was in pursuit of Rowe after breaking up a group of young men congregating in June 2002, according to Rowe’s attorney. Once caught, Rowe claims Morse put him in a chokehold until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, Rowe claims Morse choked him again until he passed out.

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