Sunday, February 04, 2001

Culberson attorney has higher aim

        It is not about money. Even though Thursday a federal court jury ordered $3.75 million to be paid to relatives of Carrie Culberson, their attorney insists it was about something more complicated.

        Alphonse Gerhardstein says, for him at least, it started when a man in a straitjacket died in jail. “There was a broomstick in the holding cell, and the other inmates took turns beating him.” Al Gerhardstein won a settlement in 1977.

        “I gave the money to his mom, but it didn't get rid of that holding cell.” Then, he won some money for another client. “The guy bought a new leather jacket and some boots, and I thought, "Is this what it's all about?'”

        After that, he started asking people what they wanted to win. “I wanted clients whose answer was that they wanted to fix something, to make sure whatever had happened to them would never happen to anybody else.”

        So, he found people like Helen Matje, whose daughter, Kathy, committed suicide in jail in 1981. Kathy said an undercover narcotics informant told her to keep a package of Quaaludes for him. She said he had shoved her around and she was scared of him.

        Six months after Kathy's death, the narc was sent to jail for manufacturing drugs, receiving stolen property and intimidation. This was in connection with other cases. Kathy's case was closed.

        Except to her mother, of course. She went to see Al.

        They sued Hamilton County jail officials, who had been warned that the young woman was suicidal, and the Regional Enforcement Narcotics Unit (RENU), charging negligence. In 1984, Helen Matje settled out of court for $130,000 and a list of reforms. Then she took the money and gave it to a fund for victims of civil-rights abuses and brutality.

        She would be, I think, Al Gerhardstein's idea of a dream client.

        I do not think he dreams of money. If he did, he surely would not spend so much time defending the rights of prison inmates and battered women. A $610,000 settlement last year in the death of Suzie Thompson, killed by a former boyfriend furloughed from a Warren County jail, included provisions for a memorial to victims of domestic violence and a review of jail procedures.

Unpopular victims

        After the 1993 Lucasville prison riots, Al Gerhardstein represented prisoners in a suit against the state of Ohio. “The people we represented were the good prisoners,” he says. “These guys were just trapped there. They didn't participate in the riots.” The headlines were the $2.7 million settlement, but “there were also 10 pages of non-economic reforms.”

        And the Culbersons, he says, “used litigation as part of their effort to find out what happened to Carrie.” A former boyfriend, Vincent Doan, was convicted of killing Carrie Culberson, but her body was never found. Debbie — Carrie's mom — has talked about using some of the money to build a shelter for battered women.

        Debbie Culberson's attorney, on a cold day after a very intense week, pulled his coat over a brightly colored Save the Children necktie. He looked tired. Wrung out. He said he was meeting his client later that same day at his home. He did not say what they would discuss.

        But I am guessing that it wasn't money.

        E-mail or call (513) 768-8393.


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