First-Ever Lawsuit Under the Unjust Imprisonment Statute Is Filed Against District of Columbia on Behalf of Innocent Man

(Washington, D.C.) – Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP today announced the filing of the first-ever lawsuit under the Unjust Imprisonment Statute against the District of Columbia and several Metropolitan Police Department officers on behalf of an innocent man who served over 13 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.  The suit was filed in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. 

In 1992 Steven Dewitt was convicted of second-degree murder and related gun charges for shooting Paul Ridley at a gas station in Northeast D.C. Mr. Dewitt was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. At the time of his conviction, there were significant doubts regarding his guilt. In December 2004, after years of continued investigation and extensive court hearings that unearthed even more compelling evidence of Mr. Dewitt’s innocence, D.C. Superior Court Judge A. Franklin Burgess Jr. issued a 94-page opinion finding Mr. Dewitt innocent of all charges. On Christmas Eve 2004 Steven Dewitt walked out of prison a free man after serving 13 and a half years in prison.

“This case represents a gross miscarriage of justice. An innocent man lost 13 years of his life because of misconduct and negligence by officials of the D.C. government,” said Michael A. Fitzpatrick, the Akin Gump partner who leads the team of lawyers in the pro bono representation of Mr. Dewitt. Mr. Fitzpatrick added, “While the D.C. government can never restore those 13 precious years of Mr. Dewitt’s life, it is time for the city to make amends and compensate him for the many years he spent in prison.”

The complaint alleges three separate causes of action against the defendants, the District of Columbia and several police officers. Count One seeks redress for Mr. Dewitt’s wrongful conviction and incarceration under the D.C. Unjust Imprisonment Statute. Count Two alleges that the defendants falsely imprisoned Mr. Dewitt in violation of D.C. common law. Count Three alleges that the defendants maliciously prosecuted Mr. Dewitt, also in violation of D.C. common law. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Many of the egregious facts of this case were outlined in Judge Burgess’ unprecedented 94-page opinion exonerating Mr. Dewitt, including:

  • Newly discovered witnesses . Newly discovered witnesses exonerate Mr. Dewitt and implicate a notorious gang member – currently serving nine life terms for other murders – as the victim’s killer. Judge Burgess specifically found these witnesses to be reliable and corroborated by independent evidence.
  • Unreliable eyewitness testimony . Among other misconduct, the police used unconstitutionally suggestive tactics during the initial lineup. Mr. Dewitt was the only person in the lineup ordered to wear a shirt matching the description of the perpetrator.
  • Police-coerced statement . Police officers beat and intimidated a would-be alibi witness for Mr. Dewitt, then used this witness’s coerced statement against Mr. Dewitt at trial.
  • Brady violations . There were several instances where the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence critical to Mr. Dewitt’s defense.

Mr. Dewitt’s tragic case highlights the critical importance of statutes that allow individuals to seek redress for wrongful convictions. Fortunately for Mr. Dewitt, the District of Columbia recently enacted the Innocence Protection Act of 2001, which operates as a safety net for the criminal justice system by allowing inmates an opportunity to prove their innocence in a court of law.

Founded in 1945, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, a leading international law firm, numbers more than 900 lawyers with offices in Austin, Brussels, Dallas, Dubai, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Taipei and Washington. The firm has a diversified practice and represents regional, national and international clients in a wide range of areas, including antitrust; appellate; banking and finance; capital markets; communications and information technology; corporate and securities; corporate governance; employee benefits; energy; entertainment and media; environmental; estate planning, wealth transfer and probate; financial restructuring; global security; government contracts; health; insurance; intellectual property; international trade; investment funds; labor and employment; land use; litigation; mergers and acquisitions; private equity; privatization; project development and finance; public law and policy; real estate development and finance; Russia/CIS; tax; and technology.

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