Who says complaining doesn't pay off? Sometimes it just takes longer than it should, and maybe requires the help of a lawyer adamant about cleaning up what he perceives as rampant corruption.
Such is the case of Donald Fuller, who on Friday learned that Pete Holmes and the Seattle City Attorney's Office will formally ask a judge to vacate the 2010 conviction against him for obstruction. The decision comes after Fuller, with help from his lawyer James Egan, raised a serious (and justifiable) stink about how a complaint he filed with the Office of Professional Accountability resulted in charges against him that he otherwise would not have faced.
As we wrote in last week's Daily Weekly ("Prosecution Payback," Sept. 19), Fuller was stopped by Seattle police in 2009 after an alleged jaywalking violation. Concerned he was being targeted and harassed because he's African-American, Fuller questioned police, and was in turn Tased, arrested, and held in jail for four days. Ultimately, Fuller was released after prosecutors concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge him.
A day after Fuller was released from jail he filed a complaint with the OPA over the way he was treated.
But instead of providing closure, documents associated with the OPA investigation reveal that the investigator assigned to the complaint, Caryn Lee, took it upon herself to persuade the City Attorney's Office to charge Fuller. Lee ultimately prevailed, and—as a direct result of his OPA complaint—Fuller was charged with obstruction and assault, charges he almost certainly wouldn't have faced otherwise. The City Attorney's Office, saying it makes its own charging decisions, contends it went directly to the officers involved in the incident and established that there was enough evidence to let a jury decide Fuller's guilt. A jury found Fuller guilty of obstruction, but the assault charge didn't stick.
With Egan's help, Fuller recently filed a motion seeking to dismiss the obstruction conviction on his record, arguing that it was the outcome of what's known as a "vindictive prosecution." In response to Fuller's situation, the Seattle Human Rights Commission recently called for an investigation into the matter.
While being careful not to admit real guilt in the matter, on Friday the City Attorney's Office announced that it agrees Fuller's conviction should be vacated. "Even though the jury convicted Mr. Fuller of obstructing a law-enforcement officer and, in my view, there was sufficient evidence presented at trial to support that conviction, the fact remains that Mr. Fuller would not have been charged, tried, or convicted of a crime if the OPA sergeant had not contacted the CAO to urge reconsideration of the decision not to charge Mr. Fuller," City Attorney Holmes said in a press release. "I understand the SPD and OPA have taken measures to ensure that OPA investigators will not unilaterally intervene in criminal charging decisions against complainants in the future."
While the City Attorney's Office has agreed Fuller's conviction should be vacated, Holmes adamantly denies that the charges and conviction were a result of misconduct by his office. "There was no prosecutorial misconduct in this matter, and I strongly disagree with any suggestion to the contrary," Holmes says in the release.
"I am taking this action because it is crucial that the public have full faith and confidence in both OPA and the criminal-justice system," Holmes said. "The CAO will continue to work to build the public's trust in this system."
But everything isn't hunky-dory. Now that the obstruction conviction will soon be part of Fuller's past, Egan has turned his attention to righting the matter monetarily. Claiming Fuller has endured multiple doctor visits, a slipped disc, battles with PTSD from his jail stay, and difficulties finding work in the wake of his unjust conviction, Egan says the next step is a lawsuit seeking damages for Fuller.
"I would do this for anybody in this circumstance. I would stand up and say they're entitled to compensation. I think most people would agree that he's entitled to compensation, so the only question is how much?" says Egan. "Punitive damages are the grand legal smackdown for this kind of outrageous conduct, which is appropriate in these circumstances. The city will be paying actual damages, and punitive damages. And if they don't, federal court action is appropriate to get them to do so."
As you may have guessed, while both parties agree that Fuller's conviction is best vacated, damages are an altogether different situation. "We believe that neither actual nor punitive damages are warranted in this instance, so we must respectfully disagree with Mr. Egan," responds Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office.