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Feds Pay Wrongfully Convicted D.C. Men $1.9 Million

The U.S. Department of Justice agreed in April 2011 to pay almost $1.9 million to two former prisoners wrongfully convicted of murder, who spent a combined 49 years in prison for a District of Columbia homicide.

Joseph Wayne Eastridge and Joseph Nick Sousa, along with two co-defendants, were convicted in D.C. Superior Court for the 1974 stabbing death of Johnnie Battle. Eastridge and Sousa, who were associated with the Pagans motorcycle gang, were accused of chasing down and stabbing Battle in a racially-charged confrontation. Both were sentenced to 20 years to life.

After nearly two decades of investigating Battle’s death, the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr and the nonprofit advocacy group Centurion Ministries uncovered evidence favorable to the defense that prosecutors had failed to turn over at trial. That evidence, consisting of grand jury transcripts, revealed that two men other than Eastridge and Sousa had lied to the grand jury about their whereabouts on the night Battle was killed.

In 2005, a federal court granted Eastridge and Sousa habeas corpus relief. “Illuminated by the light of this new evidence, the fog has lifted,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer. “The court finds that this is the rare case in which Petitioners can prove their ‘actual innocence’ of the crime charged as well as violations of their constitutional rights at trial.” See: Eastridge v. United States, 372 F.Supp.2d 26 (D.D.C. 2005).

Sousa was released on parole after serving 20 years. Eastridge served 29 years, including time for assaulting a guard, before his 2005 release. In 2009, a federal district court granted them a “certificate of innocence.” See: Eastridge v. United States, 602 F.Supp.2d 66 (D.D.C. 2009). They then filed a claim with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the Justice Department fought them over whether they should receive $5,000 or $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated. The compensation amount was increased by Congress in 2004 to $50,000 per year.

“The government convicted clearly innocent men and then fought over how much they owe,” said attorney Patrick Regan of the Washington, D.C. law firm of Regan, Zambri & Long, who represented Eastridge and Sousa along with John Zwerling of Alexandria, Virginia’s Zwerling, Leibig & Moseley. “Even at the end, they were trying to take something from these guys.”

Sousa received a settlement of $750,000 while Eastridge received $1.14 million. See: Eastridge v. United States, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Case No. 1:10-cv-00057-CFL.

Additional sources: The Blog of Legal Times,

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Related legal cases

Eastridge v. United States

Eastridge v. United States

Eastridge v. United States