Judge scolds city over trashed e-mails in Tamara Greene case
A federal judge slammed the City of Detroit and its former top lawyer Wednesday for destroying e-mails that might have shed light on the slaying of a stripper, even as the judge said he was struggling with whether a long-running lawsuit by the woman’s family can proceed to trial.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen affirmed the ruling of a magistrate and ordered the city to pay legal fees and costs to Norman Yatooma, the lawyer for Tamara’s Greene’s family, for destroying potential evidence.
In his written opinion, Rosen called the city’s conduct egregious, absurd and disingenuous for allowing e-mails of then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and other city officials to be destroyed, preventing their possible use in the case. No one has proved the e-mails were incriminating. But in their absence, the judge ruled, jurors can be told that the city destroyed evidence and to make whatever they wish of that fact.
That is, if Rosen allows the case to go to trial. He’s still weighing that issue.
Rosen singled out former city Corporation Counsel John Johnson, his successor Krystal Crittendon and John Schapka, the main attorney, for making excuses. “It is utterly irresponsible for the city and its counsel to seek to minimize their culpability, shift the blame and throw up their hands … at what they possibly could have done wrong or done differently,” he wrote.
Angry judge stops short of awarding Greene’s family a lawsuit win
U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen was miffed at the City of Detroit and its in-house attorneys Wednesday, but not enough to award a lawsuit victory to the family of slain stripper Tamara Greene.
Norman Yatooma, the lawyer representing Greene’s children as they sue the city and former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, had asked Rosen to award him a default judgment because the city’s destruction of Kilpatrick’s and other officials’ e-mails was so egregious.
Rosen wouldn’t go that far. In fact, while highly critical of the city’s conduct, Rosen said he’s struggling with whether to even allow the family’s lawsuit to proceed to trial.
“I’d like to say I’ve reached an opinion, but I haven’t,” he told the lawyers arguing in the 6-year-old case.
Yatooma acknowledged he doesn’t have all the evidence he might want in the case, but he argued there’s enough to let a jury decide whether his clients have been wronged.
“We don’t literally have to catch someone on ‘Candid Camera’ doing something wrong,” Yatooma said outside court.
But Rosen said the legal issues remain complex.
A year ago, lawyers for the city and Kilpatrick asked to have the case thrown out for lack of evidence. On Wednesday, Rosen had all the lawyers in for a final debate and said he plans to issue a ruling soon, but he gave no date.
The case centers on a point of law the judge called unchartered waters. At its core, the lawsuit by Greene’s family accuses the city and Kilpatrick of violating their constitutional rights by deliberately covering up her murder investigation to prevent Greene’s killer from being found. If true, the suit argues, that illegally obstructed the family’s ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit against her killer.
Greene, 27, was killed in a drive-by shooting in April 2003, about eight months after she supposedly danced at the long-rumored, but never-proved Manoogian Mansion party. Kilpatrick and city officials have denied the party happened and any connection between her death and the former mayor.
Rosen said Wednesday that Yatooma had done a good job digging up circumstantial evidence of a possible cover-up of her murder investigation.
But the judge said that, even if a cover-up is proven, the issue is whether Yatooma must also show that the defendants specifically intended to violate the Greene family’s rights. Rosen said it is possible Kilpatrick, who was under investigation by a number of police agencies at the time, had other reasons to scuttle investigations.
“There is still out there, a possibility that the mayor didn’t want to be investigated for anything,” Rosen said.
Yatooma argued that even if Kilpatrick didn’t intend to harm Greene’s family, a “reckless disregard” for the rights of her children should be enough for the case to proceed to trial.
“The very difficult inquiry is whether that’s enough,” Rosen said.
The judge was more definitive on a side issue, ruling that the City of Detroit should pay Yatooma’s legal fees and costs in pursuing e-mails that were ultimately destroyed, rather than turned over to Yatooma as part of a routine exchange of evidence in the case.
If the case goes forward, Rosen ruled, Yatooma will be permitted to tell the jury that the city destroyed potential evidence, and jurors will be permitted to make of that what they will. A jury might conclude, for instance, that the city destroyed the e-mails because they would have bolstered Yatooma’s case.
Yatooma has two weeks to present his bills to the judge. Yatooma wouldn’t take a guess Wednesday on how much he will request, other than to say, “A lot.”