The city of Detroit has been ordered to pay US$1.1 million (NZ$1.35m) to a young man who was rousted out of bed as a 14-year-old, charged with murder and held in a violent juvenile lockup for nearly two years before being acquitted of a fatal shooting in his neighbourhood.
Caleb Sosa, now 19, claimed police violated his civil rights by coercing him to put his initials on a confession that he couldn't even read. The allegations in his lawsuit were never tested, however, because the case ended in an extraordinary way. A judge declared a default when city lawyers failed the most basic procedural step: They never filed a timely answer in court.
"The judge found that mistakes were made," acknowledged Krystal Crittendon, the head of Detroit's law department.
Sosa's attorney, Ronnie Cromer Jr, believes he had a strong case and could have persuaded a jury to award even more money if the lawsuit over police tactics had gone to trial. Nonetheless, it's an embarrassing result for a city that is nearly broke and typically pays out more than US$20 million a year in legal claims.
The lawyer who botched the case no longer works for Detroit.
"That's flat-out malpractice," said Deborah Gordon, an attorney who regularly sues local governments. "Municipalities should be sophisticated and responsible to deal with this stuff. Even if you're overwhelmed with work, you cannot allow a default. Get a calendar."
The lawsuit centred on how Detroit police arrested and interrogated Sosa after a sensational murder in 2007. A 13-year-old on the southwest side was fatally shot in the middle of the night, the unintended victim of a gang feud. Another person who was shot and survived identified Sosa as the masked gunman.
In an interview, Sosa said he was asleep and wearing only pyjama pants when an officer entered his bedroom to take him away for an interview. He was released but picked up again a month later.
"They're telling me, 'You killed somebody.' I kept telling them over and over again: I had nothing to do with it," Sosa said this week.
"I did not know how to read. I did not know how to write. As far as a confession, I had no idea what it was," he said. "Police told me to sign right here and you can go home. I didn't even know how to put my initials. I asked them to show me how to write a 'C' and a 'V' and an 'S.'"
Sosa was charged with first-degree murder. The first trial ended without a unanimous verdict. Worn down by his time in custody and fearing a life sentence, Sosa was close to pleading guilty before a second trial in exchange for a 15-year prison term.
"I saw it as a way out," he explained. "I grabbed a pen. I looked at my mum. I barely put down the first letter of my name. I dropped the pen. I looked at the judge's face and said, 'I cannot sign this paper.'"
His second trial in 2009 ended with an acquittal. After 631 days in custody, Sosa went home. No one else has been charged in the slaying.
Cromer filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2010, accusing Detroit police of creating a phony confession and covering up evidence that would have helped Sosa. The lawsuit was amended in 2011 and hand-delivered to the city's law department. But city attorney Jane Mills never filed a formal response in federal court.
Cromer, frustrated by the inaction, asked US District Judge Sean Cox to declare the city in default. Cox agreed, saying, "This is not a case involving excusable neglect."
In September, Cox awarded US$1.1m to the young man and US$80,380 to his mother. The case still is pending while lawyers work out a 40-year schedule of payments to Sosa.
Mills, who now works for a law firm, declined to comment. Crittendon, head of the Detroit law department, declined to say whether Mills quit or was fired. She also declined to discuss how the Sosa case was managed.
No matter how he won the lawsuit, Sosa hopes the public doesn't lose sight of his innocence and his time in a juvenile lockup. He said he was repeatedly beaten by inmates much older than him and suffered a dislocated jaw, broken ribs and other injuries.
His mother, Amparo Hernandez-Sosa, said she often parked her minivan outside the detention centre and flashed the headlights to wish her son a good night.
"I was 14. I was a baby," Sosa said. "This is a scar inside my head and inside my heart. ... I got arrested for a crime I did not commit. They grabbed me and put the blame on me."