Warwick Beacon

Hornoff files civil rights suit

On Oct. 21, just over two weeks prior to the three-year anniversary of his release from prison, former Warwick Detective J. Scott Hornoff has filed a civil complaint with the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island naming, among others, the City of Warwick, Major Thomas Nye and retired Detective Sergeant Richard Santos.

In 1996, Hornoff was wrongfully convicted of the 1989 murder of Victoria Cushman of Warwick. Though he served six years, four months and 18 days of a life sentence, he was released only after the true murderer, Todd Barry, a carpenter from Cranston, stepped forward and confessed to the killing. Sunday will be three years since Hornoff’s release from a prison.

Today, the father of four asserts Warwick Police, namely Nye and Santos, violated his civil rights when they focused solely on him during the investigation into Cushman’s murder and did not look elsewhere for a suspect who was waiting for them to question him.

“[Former Police Chief Wesley] Blanchard, together with Defendants Santos and Nye and others, carried out the Warwick Police Department’s custom and policy of lax investigative techniques that permitted or encouraged key evidence to be withheld, destroyed or lost, and that prevented discovery and disclosure of exculpatory evidence that would have come to light had the Warwick Police followed proper investigative procedures with respect to Hornoff as a suspect,” says the complaint. “After taking and passing the polygraph test, Hornoff was advised he was not a suspect. However, certain officers within the Warwick Police Department continued to pursue Hornoff as the lead suspect, and these officers, including Defendants Santos and Nye, worked very hard to see that Hornoff be charged and convicted for Cushman’s murder.

“Todd Barry was easy to find,” it continues. “He had dated Cushman. Cushman’s friends knew him. His name was in her address file. Yet the Warwick investigators never contacted him. They never questioned him. He left evidence all over the crime scene, and Cushman’s blood was all over his clothes. In his written confession, even Todd Barry expressed surprise that the Warwick Police did not call to question him: ‘I always thought I was going to be questioned [immediately] after her death. That never happened.’ Similarly, the owner of a club that Cushman and Barry used to visit together wondered why the police never came to question him. While Barry awaited questioning that never came, Defendants Santos and Nye continued to pursue Hornoff, and they did whatever they could to keep the investigation focused on him. According to former Warwick Police officers, Santos, Nye and certain other individuals within the Warwick Police Department quietly worked to keep the investigation of Hornoff alive.”

The 32-page complaint also names the State of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island State Police, retired state police officers Detective Captain Richard Hurst and Detective Lt. Thomas Denniston, as well as defendants John and Jane Doe 1-10, “whose identities are currently unknown [but] were employees of the Warwick Police Department,” and John and Jane Doe 1-20, “whose identities are currently unknown [but] were employees of the Rhode Island State Police.”

“Hornoff’s arrest, trial, wrongful conviction and six-plus year incarceration were the result of documented and gross failures on the part of certain members of the Warwick Police Department and Rhode Island State Police,” says the complaint. “Warwick’s handling of the investigation into Victoria Cushman’s homicide was so delinquent that an independent investigation was launched to review the Warwick Police Department’s conduct. The independent investigation resulted in a scathing report issued by independent counsel Kevin J. Bristow on May 2, 1995, which described the Warwick Police Department’s conduct as ‘inexplicable,’ ‘deficient’ and ‘severely flawed’ and observed that Warwick officers failed to gather evidence “crucial in either implicating or clearing Detective Hornoff.

“In or about 1991, due to the documented ineptitude of the Warwick Police Department, the State Police were asked to assist in investigating the 1989 Cushman murder,” it continues. “The State Police worked with ‘liaison’ police officers from Warwick and, together, they began building a false case against Hornoff…Only by knowingly or recklessly destroying, suppressing and ignoring key pieces of evidence, intimidating and coercing witnesses, offering false evidence, using improper investigatory techniques and committing other misdeeds were the State of Rhode Island, the City of Warwick and various individuals able to convince a jury that Hornoff was guilty of a murder he did not commit.”

The complaint charges, “As a result of his wrongful conviction, Hornoff lost everything: his home, his profession, his family, and his freedom.” It also states not only is Hornoff looking for a monetary award, but that he wants to see others’ constitutional rights are not violated as he asserts his were.

“Beyond compensating Hornoff for the six-plus years of his life that were wrongly taken from him and for his continuing injuries, this lawsuit seeks to redress the unlawful municipal policies and practices that led to the violation of a Rhode Island and United States citizen’s clearly established rights as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and its Amendments.”

At the end of the complaint, Hornoff asks the Court to grant him compensatory and punitive damages “in an amount to be determined at trial” as well as court costs and attorney fees.

Over the years there have been several cases of those wrongfully imprisoned successfully seeking damages. In October 2001, James Newsome of Illinois was awarded $15 million – $1 million for each of the 15 years he served in prison for a wrongful murder conviction.

As for this lawsuit, no timeframe has been established. However, it is known that Judge Mary Lisi will reside over the case as Judge William Smith recused himself. Smith served as Warwick’s city solicitor.

In the meantime, Hornoff and the city are still at odds over a reinstatement and back pay order handed down by Justice Joseph F. Rodgers in January and March of 2004, respectively. The city appealed Rodgers’ decision and as of late the Rhode Island Supreme Court has set no date to hear the case, even though it had said it would expedite it April 2004 after it granted the city’s request to stay Hornoff’s reinstatement until it could hear it.

Both Hornoff and his attorney, Robert Feldman, declined comment, as did Michael Healey, public information officer for the AG’s office, saying he didn’t think it was wise to comment and “we’ll do our talking in court.” None of the other defendants, including City Solicitor John Earle, could be reached for comment.

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