Appeals Court Upholds $6 million civil award for PG Police abuse
A three-judge panel of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has upheld a decision by a civil jury to award more than $6 million to a man who was wrongly accused by Prince George's County police of killing his wife.
The 51-page appellate decision upholds the civil verdict in favor of Keith Longtin, now 54.
"Constitutional rights in Maryland will be protected by our courts and not swept under the rug by technicalities," Cary J. Hansel, one of Longtin's civil attorneys, said.
In 1999 and 2000, Longtin spent more than eight months in jail after Prince George's homicide detectives charged him with murdering his estranged wife, Donna Zinetti, 36.
Her body was found in a wooded area near her Laurel apartment in October 1999. She had been stabbed and slashed 13 times in the face, neck, and chest.
During a span of 38 hours, teams of detectives took turns interrogating Longtin about the slaying. Longtin slept 55 minutes during that time, according to detectives' logs.
Eventually, detectives alleged, Longtin said he picked up a knife and chased Zinetti after arguing with her.
The alleged statement was not recorded, and Longtin denied making it. Longtin said he denied to detectives that he killed Zinetti; the denial was not included in police charging documents.
Police took DNA samples from Longtin to compare with DNA left by Zinetti's killer. In January 2000, a Maryland State Police crime lab technician told the lead county homicide detective that Longtin's DNA did not match the DNA left by the attacker.
The detective did not tell Longtin's defense attorney, or the state's attorney's office, of the finding.
In June 2000, the detective advised county prosecutors that the DNA found on Zinetta matched Nathaniel D. Oesby. Longtin was released from jail, and Oesby was charged in the killing. In 2001, Oesby was convicted of Zinetti's murder and sentenced to two life terms in prison.
Longtin sued the county and four homicide detectives. In August, 2006, a civil jury in Upper Marlboro found that police had violated Longtin's rights and awarded him nearly $6.4 million. The trial judge later reduced the amount to a little more than $5 million.
However, interest on that amount has accrued, at the rate of 10 percent a year, while the county has appealed the verdict. With interest, the total is now more than $6 million, Hansel said.
In its appeal, the county claimed Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols should not have allowed DNA evidence into the civil trial. The county also alleged that Longtin and his first attorney had missed a deadline to file a notice alerting the county that he intended to file a lawsuit.
The Court of Special Appeals found that the DNA evidence was relevant to Longtin's civil suit, and that he had a good reason for missing the filing deadline -- because he was locked up for a murder he did not commit. In addition, Longtin was not made aware that the police had withheld DNA evidence exonerating him until after the deadline had passed, the appellate court found.
John Erzen, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (who was the state's attorney when Longtin was charged with the murder), said officials are reviewing the appellate decision and considering whether to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest appellate court.
Longtin's experience was chronicled in a series of articles in The Washington Post examining how county homicide detectives coerced false confessions -- or statements that police portrayed as admissions -- from innocent people after unlawfully subjecting them to marathon interrogations, depriving them of sleep and refusing to let them speak to their lawyers.
Besides the alleged confession from Longtin, county police coerced false confessions from at least three other men, the articles said.
-- Ruben Castaneda
January 28, 2010; 8:24 AM ET
Categories: From the Courthouse , Homicide , Maryland , Pr. George's , Ruben Castaneda | Tags: Keith Longtin, Prince George's County police, Ruben Castaneda, false confessions
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