An Ohio man who was exonerated after spending 13 years in prison for murder cried as a federal jury found that two Cleveland police detectives violated his civil rights by coercing and falsifying testimony and withholding evidence that pointed to his innocence.
The jury’s verdict on Friday, which included awarding $13.2 million to David Ayers of Cleveland for his pain and suffering, brings an end to the legal battle he’s been fighting since his arrest in the 1999 killing of 76-year-old Dorothy Brown.
Ayers, 56, was released from prison in 2011 after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed his conviction and the state decided not to seek another trial.
Ayers, who was a security guard for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, had been found guilty of killing Brown at her CMHA apartment in Cleveland. She was found bludgeoned to death, covered in defensive wounds and naked from the waist down; she also had been robbed. DNA testing later proved that a pubic hair found in her mouth did not come from Ayers.
“This should have been stopped a long time ago,” Ayers told the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the jury’s verdict Friday. “My goal is that it never happens to anyone else ever again.”
A phone number listed for Ayers did not accept messages Saturday.
Ayers filed his civil rights lawsuit in March 2012 against six Cleveland police officers, the city and the county housing authority. Allegations against three of the officers, the city and the housing authority were dismissed by a judge who found that their roles did not violate Ayers’ rights.
One of the remaining officers settled out of court with Ayers for an undisclosed amount. The Friday verdict was against Michael Cipo and Denise Kovach, who were the lead investigators in the case.
Kovach and Cipo could not be reached for comment. They have denied misconduct.
Phone and email requests for comment with Cleveland police and the three city attorneys who represent Cipo and Kovach were not immediately answered Saturday. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that attorney Rachel Steinback of Chicago, who represented Ayers, said the city is self-insured so the award will come from taxpayer money, not an insurance company.
“We did him justice,” Steinback told the paper. “He deserved it. I found him absolutely credible and believed every word he said.”
Among the most serious allegations by Ayers against Kovach and Cipo were that the two detectives conspired with each other to fabricate a confession that he never made, coerced a friend of Ayers to lie by saying that Ayers had told him of the murder before Brown’s body was discovered, and gave key information about the crime to Ayers’ prison cellmate so he could later testify against Ayers about an admission he didn’t make.
In an August filing, Cipo and Kovach argued to have the lawsuit dismissed, saying that they acted in good faith and with probable cause, and that Ayers was responsible for any alleged injuries that he incurred.
Federal Judge James Gwin denied their request late last month shortly before the trial, ruling that Ayers had produced sufficient evidence that the detectives had violated his rights.