Wednesday, January 12, 2011
SAN DIEGO Cheryl and Stephen Crowe sat on the couch in their daughter’s condo as they listened to the tinny speakers of a laptop computer, which replayed arguments made before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court panel ruled the prosecution of their son, for the murder of their daughter, shocked the conscience and thoroughly justified a civil rights suit by the boy's family. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the cities of Escondido and Oceanside. Cheryl Crow said that means game time as arrived.
"We're going to trial,” she said. “Finally they're going to have to answer all the questions we've been wondering. What made you do this? What is the policy? It's time for answers for what they've done."
What Escondido police investigators did was accuse 14-year-old Michael Crowe of murdering his sister in January of 1998. Interrogations of Michael, and two of his friends, resulted in confessions to the stabbing of 12-year-old Stepanie Crowe. But the boys were interrogated for hours without the presence of a lawyer or their parents. In fact, Stephen and Cheryl Crowe say they didn't even know 14-year-old Michael was being questioned.
"They had taken both children away from us,” said Cheryl, referring to Michael and his other sister Shannon. “They were both put in protective custody at the Polinsky Center. We had no contact whatsoever with them. They would not allow us to call them, go see them, anything like that."
It turned out police investigators were questioning Michael as he was in protective custody. Stephen Crowe said that led to some shocking news.
"Well then they called me on the phone and said we've arrested the murderer of your daughter. I said, ‘Who.’ And they said ‘Your son.’ I said ‘What???’ As if it wasn't bad enough having our daughter murdered, then all of a sudden they drop this on us," said Stephen.
The case against Michael Crowe fell apart after a defense attorney insisted police test the clothing of a mentally-ill prowler named Richard Tuite. 911 calls placed Tuite in the Crowe's neighborhood that night. A patrolman who responded saw an open door to the Crowe's house but failed to investigate. Forensic testing ultimately showed Tuite's clothes were stained with drops of Stephanie's Crowe's blood.
The Crowes' lawsuit against police from Escondido and Oceanside claims violation of 5th and 14th amendment rights. Police interrogated the boys for hours on end and lied to them about evidence. One Escondido officer lied the a grand jury, claiming a knife that belonged to one of the boys had blood on it.
Escondido officials argued the Crowe's case could not go forward because police investigators have qualified immunity from civil rights lawsuits. In this case, the 9th Circuit disagreed.
Attorney Milt Silverman represents the Crowes. He said he'll argue at trial that Escondido police sought to cover the fact that their patrol officer failed to investigate Tuite's presence.
"They knew that, but for their officer being too lazy to get out of his car, that little girl would not have been murdered. So the decided to pin the case on Michael Crowe," said Silverman.
Escondido officials had argued the Crowe's case could not go forward because police investigators have qualified immunity from civil rights lawsuits. But city attorney Jeffrey Epp acknowledges the Supreme Court refusal to hear the city's appeal means either a settlement or a trial. As to the behavior of Escondido's police investigators, he says their behavior was not shocking to him.
"I think the investigators were faced with a very difficult set of facts and circumstances," said Epp.
Asked how much the city might face in damages if the Crowe's lawsuit prevails, Epp said he wouldn't speculate.
"Obviously, the more reasonable Mr. Silverman is, the less it would cost us,” he said, launching into a peal of laughter. “So no, I couldn't give you any kind of number."
The Crowe family has spent thirteen years fighting for the freedom of their son and seeking redress in the courts. Today, Stephen and Cheryl Crowe seemed excited by the prospect of going to trial as they spoke to me in their daughter’s living room. But they are still bitter about the experience.
Stephen became the most animated as he spoke about Richard Tuite, the deranged drifter who was found guilty of murdering Stephanie. Stephen is still incensed that Tuite was found guilty only of voluntary manslaughter.
Michael Crowe, the son who was charged with his sister’s murder, is now a married adult who lives in Oregon. Stephen and Cheryl have hit a patch of financial trouble, after Cheryl lost her job and a back injury has disabled Stephen. As for Stephanie, both of her parents say they think about her every day.
"She's been gone now longer than she was alive,” said Cheryl. “And maybe if Escondido had better officers that got out of their car, maybe she'd be alive. We can't hold them accountable for her murder. That was Richard Tuite. But maybe things would have been a lot different if they had followed the truth and followed policy and not lied."
Both plaintiff and defense attorneys say that, barring a settlement, the Crowe family lawsuit will go ahead this year.