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$3,540,402.22 Jury Award In California Wrongful Conviction Case

A California federal jury awarded $2 million to a man imprisoned 12 years for a rape/robbery he did not commit. The court also awarded him $1,368,834 in attorney fees, $6,500 in fees on fees, and $165,067.22 in costs (including $40,363.35 in travel expenses, $20,935.32 in jury consultant expenses and $54,995.48 in investigator expenses) for a total award of $3,540,402.22.

Herman Atkins was convicted of forcible rape, forcible oral copulation and robbery in 1988. He was 22. Atkins was 34 when he emerged from prison after the Innocence Project helped him get DNA testing that exonerated him. Atkins then filed suit against Danny C. Miller, a Riverside County detective Atkins alleged had falsified an arrest warrant witness statement claiming Atkins, who lived in Los Angeles, was seen in Riverside near the crime scene.

The case had a tortured procedural history after it was transferred to federal district judge Percy Anderson when he was appointed to the bench on June 12, 2002. Anderson granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Atkins appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded for trial deliberate fabrication of evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence claims.

Trial was reopened. Anderson issued orders excluding any evidence of Atkins’s innocence as irrelevant and requiring Atkins to disclose to Miller privileged work product on issues that would be addressed during Miller’s cross-examination. Atkins filed an emergency petition for a writ of mandamus in the Ninth Circuit (EPWM) which was granted on both issues.

Next, Anderson faxed Miller a minute order suggesting that he move for summary judgment on the fabrication-of-evidence claim on grounds already decided in the previous appeal. This resulted in a second EPWM. The Ninth Circuit ordered Anderson to respond to the EPWM. Instead, he withdrew the minute order so that the EPWM was denied as moot.

Atkins then filed a motion to recuse Anderson which was referred to and denied by Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, who noted that it was a close question. Atkins filed a third EPWM seeking judge Anderson’s recusal. The Ninth Circuit denied the petition, calling it a close question.

A two-week trial ensued. Anderson polled the eight-person jury on the first day of deliberation, asking if they thought they could reach a unanimous verdict. Six said yes.
The next morning, Anderson announced his intention to declare a mistrial. Both parties objected and Atkins filed a fourth EPWM. Anderson declared a mistrial and the EPWM was denied as moot. However, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion finding judicial bias and recusing Anderson from further proceedings.

Judge David D. Pregerson conducted a three-week trial. On May 25, 2007, the jury found for Miller on the fabrication of evidence claim and for Atkins on the suppression of exculpatory evidence claim. It awarded him $2,000,000 in damages. Atkins moved for attorney fees and costs. On August 27, 2007, the court granted them at the full amounts requested because of the excellent job done by the Innocence Project team--Peter J.
Neufeld and Deborah L. Cornwall of New York--in briefing and presenting the case. Defendant’s appeal was dismissed following an undisclosed post-trial settlement. See: Atkins v. Miller, USDC-CD, CA-Los Angeles, Case No. 2:01-cv-1574-DDP-E.

Additional Sources: VerdictSearch National, Associated Press.

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Related legal case

Atkins v. Miller