Thursday, February 25, 2010

'How do you compensate someone or his family for 17 years?'

City may pay $1.2 million in false rape conviction

The City of Buffalo will likely pay $1.2 million to the estate of a man falsely accused of being the “Tifft Farm rapist” who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Common Council is expected to approve a settlement today authorizing payment to the family of the late Vincent H. Jenkins, who later changed his name to Warith Habib Abdal.

He was convicted in the 1982 rape and robbery of a 23-year-old Buffalo woman at what was then the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve. He was freed from prison 17 years later after DNA tests proved he wasn’t the rapist.

The state paid Abdal $2 million in 2002 to settle a wrongful- imprisonment suit.

Abdal died several years ago, but his family pursued a lawsuit he filed against the city alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution by the Buffalo Police Department. His attorneys alleged that investigators used suggestive and coercive tactics to prod the victim to identify him as the attacker.

“The police botched this case, and now we’re out $1.2 million,” said Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, a retired Buffalo police officer.

Rivera heads the Council’s Claims Committee, which has met with city legal experts to discuss the proposed settlement. In reviewing the facts, Rivera said this should become a textbook case for new police recruits about how not to handle criminal investigations.

David A. Jay, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Abdal in the lawsuit, could not be reached to comment. Jay worked on the case with some attorneys who were part of O. J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” during his murder trial, including Barry Scheck.

City attorneys are encouraging the Council to approve the $1.2 million settlement. They told members of the Claims Committee that if the case went to trial, the city could face damages and legal costs that approach $5 million. In a best-case scenario, attorneys argued, the city would likely be found responsible for the defendant’s 440-day incarceration from the date of wrongful arrest to the start of his trial.

While the city authorizes hundreds of settlements each year, settlements that hit the $1 million mark are quite rare.

Rivera said the rape case is an unfortunate case for all parties involved. “How do you compensate someone or his family for 17 years?” he asked.

Abdal was a former Lackawanna resident who had a previous criminal record. A jury convicted him of raping and robbing a woman during a bird-watching expedition at the South Buffalo nature preserve.