Warwick Beacon

11/02/2004

Hornoff, city still waiting to resolve reinstatement

By KELLY SMITH

With briefings being filed over the next 30 days or so, it seems unlikely the Rhode Island Supreme Court will hear the city’s appeal regarding the reinstatement of former police detective J. Scott Hornoff before spring.

In 1996, Hornoff was wrongfully convicted of the 1989 murder of Victoria Cushman of Warwick. Hornoff spent more than six years in prison before the true murderer, Todd Barry, a carpenter from Cranston, confessed to the killing. Next week will be two years since Hornoff’s release.

Since shortly after his exoneration in January 2003, Hornoff has been in conflict with the city regarding what he believes was a wrongful termination. Hornoff sought to have back pay and pension awarded him and his benefits reestablished.

Late last year, Superior Court Justice Joseph Rodgers ordered Hornoff to be reinstated and in March he ruled Hornoff be given just over $500,000 in back pay. In his decision, Rodgers used the law of equity. The law of equity is the court’s right to make a decision that is fair and just when no precedent has been set or no law seems to apply.

The city appealed this decision and in so doing asked the reinstatement be stayed until the Supreme Court could hear the case. Rodgers denied that request and in turn the city appealed to the Supreme Court. Hornoff had been receiving paychecks from March 12 through April 16 totaling $7,239.05

In a reversal of Superior Court Justice Rodgers’ decision, the court granted the city’s request to stay Hornoff’s reinstatement until it could hear the case. In its brief announcing the decision on April 9 of this year, the Supreme Court ordered the case be expedited.

Attorney Michael Brady said it is hard to gauge whether or not nearly a year is speedy. Brady said some cases that reach the state’s highest court could take as little as two weeks, where others can take years. The complexity of the case, and considering a decision could set legal precedent, makes hearing and rendering a decision on the case a lengthy process. That said, a year could be considered swift.

Brady added that, to the defense, a year might seem as though things are being fast tracked, where for Hornoff a decision can’t come soon enough.

“He needs to get on with his life,” said Brady. “He cannot write the next chapter until this one is finished.”

Hornoff believes the city did not follow the proper procedure outlined in the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights when it terminated him in 2000 after the Supreme Court denied his request to have the conviction overturned. Hornoff said he had not exhausted all of his appeals, a condition for termination outlined in the LEOBOR. Further, his attorneys argued that he had 90 days to file any further appeals before they could fire him. The city maintains it followed the correct course of action when it terminated him just two days after the Supreme Court’s decision.

Brady feels that the city’s argument that Hornoff never filed an appeal within the 90 days makes their case invalid; however, he still believes Hornoff ought to be compensated. A retired Charlestown Police chief who worked on the committee to revise the LEOBOR in 1995 and 1996, Brady testified before Rodgers on Hornoff’s behalf. Brady told the court that in revising the LEOBOR, the writers never considered what would happen in a case like Hornoff’s.

“We never contemplated that this could ever happen,” said Brady. “We never thought to ask what happens if we’re wrong.”

Brady said in a case like Hornoff’s, where he was found to have been innocent all along and “the statute clearly does not provide for that” the officer needs to be compensated. Brady added that although the city has a good legal argument, Rodgers was right to use equity in making his decision.

“There’s an old saying that says, ‘Let that be done which should’ve been done,’” said Brady. “Scott Hornoff was found guilty by a jury of his peers. He lost his job, his house, his family and six years of his life. He can never get that time back. You can’t compensate by giving him back the lost time.” Brady said the next best means of compensation is money.

“The judge was absolutely brilliant in his decision,” said Brady, adding that Hornoff was wronged and “something needs to be done.” Brady is an attorney with Anderson and Brady Law Firm.

Though he declined to comment on the proceedings, Hornoff’s attorney, Robert Feldman, said he appreciated the court giving the case its prompt attention.

“Scott has worked hard since his release to begin rebuilding his life,” said Feldman. “He has spoken at law schools and to the New England Innocence Project trying to help other wrongfully convicted individuals. I am hopeful that getting this dispute with the city resolved and having Justice Rodgers’ reinstatement order affirmed will further help Scott get on with his life.”

City Solicitor John Earle could not be reached for comment by press time.


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Life After Exoneration

Truth in Justice