FORD HEIGHTS 4 OFFERED HUGE SETTLEMENT
By Robert Becker
After more than 90 minutes in closed session, the Cook County Board on Thursday authorized State's Atty. Dick Devine to offer three of the plaintiffs in the notorious Ford Heights Four case a settlement of a little more than $29 million, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
A proposed settlement figure for a fourth plaintiff had already been approved, according to sources, bringing the total to about $36 million that the county is prepared to offer to settle the civil cases in an effort to avoid the embarrassment of a trial.
Four African-American men who were wrongly convicted for a 1978 murder filed the lawsuits after they were exonerated. Three other people later were convicted of the killings.
With Commissioner Earlean Collins voting present, the board emerged from the closed session and agreed--without further comment--to "accept the recommendation" for settlement made by Devine.
After the meeting, County Board President John Stroger said attorneys for the county would present the offer to the plaintiffs' lawyers, possibly later in the day. Both sides are due back in court Friday before Circuit Court Judge William Maddux.
Stroger, citing a gag order that has been imposed in the case, declined to discuss the specifics of the negotiations, but said he hoped the offer can bring the matter to an end.
Stroger, however, said he couldn't be sure that the county's offer would be accepted.
"I don't know what the other parties think," Stroger told reporters. "The state's attorney will talk to them (the plaintiffs' lawyers). And they will definitely apprise us if they accept our recommendation."
Assistant State's Atty. Patricia Shymanski said her office would contact plaintiffs' attorneys "as soon as practical."
Stroger said the offer approved by the board was based on "information from our lawyers" and declined to say if the county's offer was its final one.
"I will listen to the state's attorneys who are the professionals and the people they've hired and then I will make a recommendation to the board as I get information," Stroger said.
Stroger stopped short of saying the settlement proposal would stop a trial.
"I think we're still negotiating," he said. "And that's what the state's attorney's going to do."
Asked why the county was trying to avoid trial, Stroger said "the lawyers made, in my opinion, a good case for trying to settle this matter if we can."
Acceptance of the settlement, which would almost certainly be a county record for such lawsuits, would end one of the most notorious chapters in county law enforcement history: the wrongful conviction of four men for the murder of a south suburban couple, Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal.
Two of the four, Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson, were sentenced to death. The others, Kenneth Adams and Willie Raines, were sentenced to life in prison.
The four men sued Cook County and certain members of the sheriff's office who took part in the criminal investigation. A fifth plaintiff, Paula Gray, was convicted initially in the murder case but later won her freedom after agreeing to testify for the prosecution in subsequent trials against the men who became known as the Ford Heights Four.
In their suit, the plaintiffs charge that the sheriff's police
were racist thugs who hid evidence that weakened the case against them
while ignoring strong leads that pointed to the real killers.
In preparing for trial, the plaintiffs' lawyers unearthed considerable evidence that sheriff's police had gathered that was never turned over to defense attorneys, including police notes of interviews undermining the credibility of key prosecution witnesses.