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Philadelphia Woman Detained 54 Days as Material Witness Settles for $275,000

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office paid a witness $255,000 to settle her claims that she was illegally detained for 54 days.

Nicole Schneyder was a critical witness against Michael Overby in a 1990 rape and murder. Overby's first trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted after a second trial, but the conviction was reversed on appeal. Schneyder refused to testify at either trial.

Judge Rayford Means granted then-Assistant District Attorney Gina Maisto Smith's request for a material witness warrant against Schneyder. Six days before Overby's third trial, Schneyder was detained on January 27, 2005.

Means ordered Smith to inform him if the trial was continued so he could release Schneyder. Just one week later, the trial was postponed until May 25, 2005, but Smith did not tell Means; even after Schneyder's family called "approximately 25 times" asking Smith why Schneyder was still incarcerated, according to court documents.

While Schneyder was still confined, her father figure died and her sisters begged the Public Defender's Office to help free her, so she could attend the funeral.

Public Defender Paul Conway arranged for Schneyder to briefly attend the viewing but she was escorted in handcuffs and not allowed to attend the funeral.

Afterwards, Conway realized the trial was months away, so he asked Means to release Schneyder. Means did not realize Schneyder was still confined and he released her immediately. He faulted Smith. "I was relying on her, and her alone, to keep me apprised of Ms. Schneyder's custodial status," said Means.

Schneyder then brought federal suit against Smith. The District Attorney's Office brought a third-party claim against Public Defender Laura Davis who was appointed to represent Schneyder at her bail hearing.

On July 29, 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court's denial of Smith's prosecutorial immunity claim. "No reasonable prosecutor would think that she could indefinitely detain an innocent witness pending trial without obtaining reauthorization," the Judges held. "And there can be no doubt that is what Smith intended." Relying upon their own previous experience as prosecutors, the Judges called Smith's conduct "outrageous" and unconstitutional. "Whether to keep Schneyder in jail should have been the court's decision, and Smith knew it."

On October 24, 2011, the District Attorney's Office agreed to pay Schneyder $255,000 and the public defender's association paid her $20,000 but denied any wrongdoing. "Judge Means' affidavit speaks volumes as to who was responsible for notifying the court," said association lawyer Michael B. Pullano. Schneyder's attorney, Daniel A. Silverman, agrees, calling the public defenders "heroes" who affected her release.

The settlement was in the City's "best financial interests" and is not an admission of guilt, claims District Attorney spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson.

"Gina Smith had not yet had the opportunity to present her full defenses to these allegations," said Jamerson. "The settlement in this case should not in any way be interpreted as an indication that the District Attorney's Office believes that Ms. Smith engaged in any wrongdoing." Silverman dismissed this contention as "silly lawyer gobbledly-goop," noting "every person with knowledge of the facts, except Gina Smith, faults Ms. Smith for what happened to my client."

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

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