Detroit City Council will consider $2.5 million settlement for wrongful conviction of Walter Swift

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Detroit City Council will soon consider a $2.5 million to settlement in the case of Walter Swift, the man prosecutors convicted in 1982 for raping a pregnant teacher inside her Indian Village home. It was a crime he never committed. 

At the time, the victim falsely identified Swift, then 21-years-old, as her rapist when the Detroit Police Department showed her dozens of photographs of black teenagers. The woman identified seven people who resembled her assailant before she arrived at Swift's photograph, his attorney says. For whatever reason, police brought in only Swift from that group — and the woman wasn't able to confidently identify him as her rapist. 

Nonetheless, the woman said it was Swift. Forensic evidence that supported Swift's claim of innocence was never shown to the prosecutor, the jury never heard of it, and an analyst who determined Swift's type didn't match that of the perpetrator was never asked to testify at the trial. 

And for that, Swift was convicted. 

"That's the last light of day Walter Swift saw until May 2008," says Julie Hurwitz, Swift's attorney, adding, "What happened to him was outrageous."

He spent 26 years in prison, until a yearslong investigation by The Innocence Project eventually led to his release on May 21, 2008. The prosecutor and officer on the case signed affidavits as part of the effort, revealing the level of wrongdoing committed by DPD. From that point on, however, similar to most exonerates, Swift struggled with post-prison life, a fact MT highlighted in a 2009 cover story. The following year, he filed a civl lawsuit against the city for malicious prosecution, false arrest, and false imprisonment.

Commonly, Hurwitz explains, wrongful convictions carries a figure of around $1 million per year. (Swift's co-counsel Barry Scheck, for example, recently won a $40 million award for a client that wrongly served roughly 15 years in prison.) But Detroit wasn't willing to concede a price that high, something that became fully evident from the onset, she says.

"The City of Detroit law department behaved, in my opinion, they behaved shamefully," Hurwitz says. 

In a nutshell, she says, the law department refused multiple requests for documents and statements related to the case. In turn, the suit moved at a slow pace. By 2013, an agreement on some level of restitution for Swift still hadn't been reached.

Then, everything came to a grinding halt: Detroit filed for municipal bankruptcy in July 2013, freezing all pending litigation against the city.

But Hurwitz and her colleagues determined civil rights cases aren't protected by a bankruptcy filing. They later filed a motion asking the court to release Swift's case and let it move forward.

The judge, Steven Rhodes, "sat on this motion for many, many months," Hurwitz says, but later found Detroit was 100 percent on the hook for whatever financial liability was determined. Both sides were ordered into post-bankruptcy mediation with Judge David Lawson of the U.S. District Court this past December. 

"So we went into this mediation with the City of Detroit knowing full well what their exposure was in this case," Hurwitz says, "also knowing full well that our client is as fragile as one can expect someone to be who has spent 26 years in prison for a crime he didn't convict." 

Hurwitz says she proposed a settlement to be paid over the course of three budget cycles, rather than one up-front sum. But the city, which by all accounts has little wiggle room in its budget, didn't move an inch on its previous position, as Hurwitz describes. Swift's legal team and the city went back-and-forth on a figure — at one point, Hurwitz says, the city offered less than $1 million. Eventually, she says, "we got to a point where we walked away." 

Lawson ordered them back into mediation early last month, Hurwitz says, "and I can tell you the numbers they were talking about back in December weren't even close to the number we settled on." 

Eventually, it became obvious the case needed to just be settled, rather than slog through another trial, for the sake of Swift.

Says Hurwitz: "Here we are, Walter is now 53-years-old, he has been struggling very, very hard to learn how to function in the world, he's been battling a serious addiction that he developed when he released from prison — he never had a substance abuse problem before [he entered] prison — and ... our hands were tied. We were able to negotiate to a point where they were willing to settle this case for $2.5 million. And, in my opinion, tragically, we had no choice." 

"At the same time, $2.5 million is quite a bit of money, and it's going to change Mr. Swift's life," she continues. "And that's all we can hope for right now. He will now be able to move forward and that's the best outcome one can hope for." 

John Roach, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, declined to comment on the settlement or the negotiations. "[W]e don't comment on what transpires during mediation or on ongoing litigation," Roach says in an email. 

The city council's internal operations committee could consider Swift's settlement as early as Wednesday, according to councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez. If the panel approves, it could go before the full Council as early as next week. 


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