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Illinois Federal Jury Awards Record $15.5 Million in False Arrest Case

by Matt Clarke

On December 20, 2007, an Illinois federal jury awarded a record amount in a civil rights case for false arrest – $15.5 million. The damage award was against the sheriff of Will County, Illinois and four of his deputies. Prior to trial, the former state attorney, forensic interviewer, polygraph examiner and a fifth deputy settled with the plaintiffs.

Three-and-a-half years earlier, on June 6, 2004, Kevin Fox of Wilmington, Illinois – a town of 5,500 located 45 miles southwest of Chicago – called the sheriff’s department to report his three-year-old daughter, Riley, was missing. Her half-naked, sexually-assaulted body was found four miles from her home in a creek a few hours later.

Fox voluntarily went to the sheriff’s office to be interviewed in November 2004. He was subjected to more than 14 hours of questioning during which the defendants threatened him with daily rape in the jail unless he gave a statement confessing to accidentally killing his daughter. They told him he had failed a polygraph examination when he had passed it; falsely told him his wife and family had abandoned him and were making statements against him; stopped him twice from leaving; and refused his requests for an attorney.

Finally, Fox broke down and “confessed” to what the police said was their version of the crime – that he had accidentally killed his daughter by hitting her with a bathroom door, and had staged an abduction, rape and murder. They then arrested him for capital murder for rape and murder of a child.

The day after the murder, the coroner discovered semen that could be tested for a DNA match. The semen sample was sent to the FBI; however, the District Attorney ordered that the testing be stopped less than a week later. The DA also publicly announced that he would seek the death penalty. Eight months later, while Fox was sitting in jail, the defense was finally told about the semen and allowed to test it at their own expense. DNA testing proved that Fox was not the person who had raped and killed his daughter; this was confirmed by additional DNA taken from duct tape found on Riley’s body. Fox was released. His daughter’s murderer has not been found.

Fox and his wife, Melissa, filed a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court, alleging false arrest, due process violations, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium for Melissa. The jury awarded $5,600,000 in compensatory damages ($1,700,000 for false arrest, $600,000 for malicious prosecution and $1,600,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress), plus $3,700,000 in punitive damages to Fox. It also awarded $3,700,000 in compensatory damages ($2,700,000 for loss of consortium and $1,000,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress), plus $2,500,000 in punitive damages to his wife.

The total of $15.5 million was the largest award ever for a case involving false arrest. The county’s insurance covers the $9.3 million in compensatory damages but not the $6.2 million in punitive damages.

The Foxes were represented by attorneys Kathleen T. Zellner, Douglas H. Johnson and Anne E. Zellner of Oak Brooks, who received $1.5 million in attorney fees and expenses through an agreed order on June 11, 2008. Kevin and Melissa Fox have announced their intention to use money from the award to find their daughter’s killer.

“Everyone should be happy about this verdict,” said Ms. Zellner. “A jury has stepped up to protect the rights that we all hold dear, and they have sent a message to Will County – and I hope Will County is listening.”

Will County listened, and promptly appealed the jury verdict. See: Fox v. Sheriff of Will County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:04-cv-07309.

Additional sources: Cook County Jury Verdict Reporter,, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press

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Related legal case

Fox v. Sheriff of Will County