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Maryland Man Awarded $6.4 Million For False Imprisonment, Police Misconduct

On August 30, 2006, a jury in Prince George?s County, Maryland, awarded $6.4 million to a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for the brutal rape and murder of his wife. During trial the jury heard compelling evidence indicating that County Police Department detectives lied about the suspect?s supposed confession, denied him access to an attorney, deprived him of sleep for over 30 hours during a marathon interrogation, and withheld exculpatory evidence. Meanwhile, during the 8 plus months the husband spent in jail, the real murderer/rapist went on to sexually assault at least 7 other women.

The partially nude body of Keith Longtin?s wife, Donna Zinneti, 36, was discovered near her apartment in the early morning hours of October 5, 1999. She had been raped, strangled, and stabbed repeatedly. Having fingered Longtin as the main suspect from the beginning simply because he was the victim?s husband, Longtin was quickly taken in for questioning.

?What followed was an ordeal lasting 39 hours and 20 minutes, violating every limitation set by law, the Maryland Constitution and common decency,? says a post-trial motion filed by Longtin?s attorneys. Prince George?s detectives proceeded to grill Longtin about his involvement in the murder for more than a day and a half, rotating in at least 7 fresh detectives to continue the interrogation when others stopped. During the interrogation Longtin was shown pictures of his wife?s bloody and mangled corpse (this is how he learned she was dead) as detectives screamed at him that he had killed her.

Longtin was allowed to sleep just 50 minutes this entire time and given only 3 meals. One meal consisted of a rotten egg sandwich that Longtin testified was so putrid that ?after eating it, he involuntarily regurgitated it into his mouth, but forced himself to swallow it again because he was so hungry,? the motion contends.

Investigators additionally denied Longtin an attorney. Longtin?s cell phone records show he attempted to call at least two lawyers before police confiscated his phone. Nor was Longtin permitted to leave the interrogation room; he tried and was threatened him with physical violence.

When Longtin failed to provide the false confession the detectives wanted, they simply made one up. He was then charged with murder and held without bail.

In the charging documents the principle investigator, Detective Ronald Herndon, swore that Longtin reported chasing his wife with a knife the day she was murdered and had ??admitted to his involvement in this case,?? according to the motion. Longtin denied saying this. What?s more, detective Glen Clark, to whom this statement was allegedly made, testified at trial that he told Herndon after the interview that Longtin ?said he didn?t kill his wife.?? Clark further told the jury that he had made Longtin?s statement of innocence known at the suppression hearing, though he was forced admit he was ?mistaken? after reviewing court records during a break.

Unfortunately, the detectives? misconduct continued long after the interrogation. For one thing, Herndon didn?t inform the prosecutor that when police canvassed the neighborhood following the murder multiple residents reported a prowler that didn?t match Longtin?s description. Nor did Herndon disclose that another potential suspect, Nathaniel D. Oesby, had been identified. Moreover, Herndon didn?t tell the prosecutor that the rape and murder of Longtin?s wife fit Oesby?s mode of operation--evidence so compelling that it was used in Oesby?s subsequent criminal trial. In fact, the prosecutor learned none this until June 2000--six months later.

As if all this weren?t enough, the police laboratory notified Herndon on January 11, 2000, that DNA evidence taken from the scene absolutely excluded Longtin as the donor. Following this Herndon notified the lab on January 14, 2000, that he would be providing Oesby?s DNA--which police already had--for testing. Unbelievably, however, Oesby?s sample was not sent to the lab until March 21, 2000, more than two months later. All the while Longtin sat in jail. In fact, he was not freed until June 12, 2000--a full 5 months after the county knew, with scientific certainty, that he was not the perpetrator, and 2 weeks after the DNA sample taken from the scene was positively matched to Oesby.

?Apparently, it was important for the Defendants to have someone in jail for this crime for reasons related to public perception and the crime statistics kept by the County,? the post-trial motion alleged. Oesby, 30, was convicted of Zinetti?s murder in 2001 and sentenced to two life terms.

After a two week trial, a jury in the Circuit Court for Prince George?s County concluded that the detectives had violated Longtin?s due process rights and that the County engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the constitutional rights of suspects being interrogated.

Longtin, now 50, was consequently awarded a total of $6.4 million--$5.2 million in compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages-- against the County, detectives Herndon and Clark, and two others, Troy Harding and Robert J. Frankenfield, both of whom remain on active duty. Herndon?s status is unknown.

?The jury found that county detectives engaged in a pattern of violating the rights of defendants, said Cary J. Hansel, one of Longtin?s attorneys. ?We hope this signals the end of lengthy, coercive police interrogations in Prince George?s County,? said Timothy F. Maloney, another of Longtin?s attorneys.

In the fiscal year ending in June 2006, Prince George?s County paid out more than $4.6 million in verdicts and settlements alleging abuse by county police. Longtin was represented by attorneys Hansel, Maloney, and Steven B. Vinick, of the Greenbelt, Maryland, law firm Joseph, Greenwald & Laake. See: Longtin v. Prince George?s County, Prince George?s Circuit Court, Case No. CAL 01-23689.

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Related legal case

Longtin v. Prince George’s County