Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

November 22, 2012

Man to get $1.1M from city

DETROIT (AP) — The city of Detroit has been ordered to pay $1.1 million 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 neighborhood.

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 $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 centered 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 with The Associated Press, Sosa said he was asleep and wearing only pajama 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 mom. 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.

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