Thursday, May 10, 2001

City sued over shooting

Death part of pattern, suit claims

By Marie McCain and Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The city of Cincinnati is ultimately to blame for the shooting death of Timothy Thomas, contends a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against the city and the officer who shot Mr. Thomas.

        The civil suit, filed on behalf of Mr. Thomas' survivors, seeks unspecified damages.

        It argues that the 19-year-old's April 7 death is indicative of a continuing pattern of civil rights abuses by Cincinnati police that the city has perpetuated by failing to adequately train and discipline its officers.

        Meanwhile, city solicitor Fay Dupuis said she would name a special prosecutor in the misdemeanor case against Officer Stephen Roach. Cincinnati City Council urged the appointment in a 7-2 vote.

        “There is no question that our people are fully qualified and have great experience trying misdemeanors,” said Ms. Dupuis, who supervises the city's prosecutors. “But if this is the direction a clear majority of council wants to go in, then that's what I will do,” she said.

        The special prosecutor recommendation was initiated by Councilwoman Alicia Reece. The vote was advisory since the city charter states that only the city solicitor can decide how the city's criminal cases are prosecuted.

[photo] Council member Alicia Reece led the call for a special prosecutor for the trial of Officer Stephen Roach.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Officer Roach pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of negligent homicide and obstructing official business. He is scheduled for a pretrial hearing May 24 before Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ralph E. Winkler.

        The officer shot and killed Mr. Thomas after a brief foot chase through Over-the-Rhine April 7. Mr. Thomas had been wanted on multiple misdemeanor warrants and was unarmed.

        The shooting set off several days of rioting in Cincinnati last month when anger in the black community over a series of deaths of black men at the hands of Cincinnati police boiled over.

        Mr. Thomas' death, the lawsuit claims, stems from the pattern of civil rights abuses by officers “who have lied about their actions in fatal shootings to justify a claim of self-defense.”

        The suit also cites the 1999 fatal police shootings of Carey Tompkins and Michael Carpenter and the 1997 shooting of Lorenzo Collins as examples of a pattern of civil rights abuses. The lawsuit mirrors concerns outlined by federal Department of Justice officials, who have opened an investigation into the patterns and practices of Cincinnati police that may violate residents' civil rights.

        Attorneys for the city and for Officer Roach did not return phone calls Wednesday.

        Angela Leisure, Mr. Thomas' mother, referred questions to her attorney, Ken Lawson.

        Mr. Lawson said his clients chose to file this lawsuit now because of a grand jury's failure to level a felony charge against Officer Roach.

        Ms. Dupuis said she does not know yet whom she will appoint as special prosecutor, but said she will have to move quickly because of the pretrial hearing set for May 24.

    Cincinnati's police union will announce today the creation of a bank account to help Officer Stephen Roach pay his legal bills.

    The fund will be the second established this year for Cincinnati police officers indicted on criminal charges.

    The first — set up in January for officers Robert “Blaine” Jorg and Patrick Caton, charged in the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr. — stands at more than $67,000, Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman said.

        Whoever it is, she said, it will be “somebody with considerable experience in municipal court.”

        Mayor Charlie Luken voted for the Reece motion Wednesday, but told fellow council members that he wanted to make it clear that council, under the city charter, would have no say in who the special prosecutor is.

        “For reasons of assuring the public that we are committed to fairness and because the relationship between city prosecutors and the police is very close, I am willing to support the motion,” the mayor said.

        Ms. Reece and other supporters of the special prosecutor motion argued that having an outside lawyer come in to try the case would eliminate any perception that city prosecutors were biased in favor of the police.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, who presented the Thomas case to the grand jury last week, called the council action Wednesday “the dumbest thing I've ever seen come out of Cincinnati City Hall.”

        “There is absolutely no reason to do this,” said Mr. Allen, whose office tries felony charges and turns over misdemeanor cases to the city prosecutors.

        “They have 20-some lawyers in that office, most of them with 15 or 20 years experience trying misdemeanors in municipal court, some of them against police officers,” Mr. Allen said. “It's a slap in the face to those people.”

        Ms. Reece said she did not intend to cast aspersions on the city prosecutors who had been assigned to the case.

        “This is in the best interest of all people involved, to have a prosecutor who is dedicated to this important case full time,” Ms. Reece said. “It is not to say that the solicitor's office is incompetent in any way.”

        Two council members - Charterite Jim Tarbell and Republican Chris Monzel - voted against the motion.

        Mr. Tarbell said the city prosecutors who were initially assigned to the case, Terry Cosgrove and Ernie McAdams, “are absolutely unassailable in their reputations. I say that if they need and ask for our help, we would extend it, but there is no reason for an outside prosecutor.”

        Mr. Cosgrove is the solicitor office's chief criminal prosecutor. Mr. McAdams, an assistant prosecutor, is African-American.

        Several black citizens who spoke on the Reece motion at Wednesday's council meeting uniformly supported hiring a special prosecutor.

        “There is a lack of confidence in government,” said the Rev. James W. Jones of the Baptist Ministers Conference. “People want to be assured that justice will be done.”

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