Superior Court Allows Exonerated Man to Proceed With Suit Against District of Columbia in Unjust Imprisonment Case

Case is first under 26-year-old Unjust Imprisonment Act to move past “motion to dismiss” stage
Exoneration is first under District’s 2001 Innocence Protection Act
Case is first to seek damages from District under Unjust Imprisonment Act as result of Innocence Protection Act exoneration

(Washington, D.C.) – District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin has ruled that exonerated former prisoner Steven Dewitt may proceed with a lawsuit against the District of Columbia and five former D.C. Metropolitan Police detectives. The decision marks the first time that a lawsuit under the District’s 26-year-old Unjust Imprisonment Act has proceeded past the “motion to dismiss” stage.

Mr. Dewitt was convicted in 1992 of murdering Paul Ridley, a then-government witness in the prosecution of a member of the “Ridge Road Crew,” a notorious street gang. In 2004, after more than 13 years in prison, Mr. Dewitt was ordered released by Judge A. Franklin Burgess of D.C. Superior Court. In a 93-page opinion, Judge Burgess found that Mr. Dewitt had not murdered Paul Ridley, and that another man, Ridge Road hit man Samuel Carson, likely had. Mr. Dewitt’s exoneration is the first of its kind under the D.C. Innocence Protection Act (IPA). Further, his case is the first to seek damages from the District under the Unjust Imprisonment Act as a result of an Innocence Protection Act exoneration.

Since Mr. Dewitt’s release on Christmas Eve 2004, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP has represented him pro bono in seeking restitution for wrongful conviction and alleged police misconduct. On December 23, 2005, Mr. Dewitt sued the District and five named former Metropolitan Police detectives in D.C. Superior Court, seeking compensation for 13½ years of wrongful imprisonment and charging the five former police officers with evidence tampering, witness intimidation and perjury.

In early 2006, attorneys for the District of Columbia and the police officer defendants moved to dismiss Mr. Dewitt’s suit on various technical grounds. After more than nine months of back-and-forth legal arguments on the motion to dismiss, Judge Retchin denied the defendants’ motions, holding that Mr. Dewitt had a right to proceed with his lawsuit.

Mr. Dewitt’s lead attorney at Akin Gump, Michael A. Fitzpatrick, hailed Judge Retchin’s decision as “vindication not only of Mr. Dewitt’s right to seek redress for his injuries, but also of the public interests that led the City Council to enact the Unjust Imprisonment Act so many years ago.” Commenting on the District seeking to dismiss Mr. Dewitt’s lawsuit on technical grounds, Mr. Fitzpatrick stated, “These kinds of cases almost never get past the motion to dismiss stage because of the disparity in legal sophistication between prisoners, who often are unrepresented, and the District, which employs a cadre of lawyers to throw up technical barriers to recovery. This case is different. Mr. Dewitt’s innocence is not in question. The fact that he was falsely imprisoned is not in question. The only question is whether the District of Columbia is going to take responsibility for its actions and for the actions of its officers.”

Mr. Dewitt issued a statement through his attorneys saying that he was “very happy” with Judge Retchin’s decision. “I always had faith in my heart that the judge would not dismiss a suit by an innocent man,” he said.

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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