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Chicago moves to have verdict in cop beating set aside

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 9:44 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration asked a federal judge Monday to set aside a jury verdict in the infamous videotaped beating of a female bartender by an off-duty police officer — essentially agreeing to pay the woman $850,000 now in return for erasing the jury’s finding that a police “code of silence” protected the bad cop.

The unusual request is an attempt to prevent last month’s damaging verdict from being cited by lawyers in other lawsuits against the police department. The former bartender filed the motion jointly with the city; she stands to quickly collect the jury award she won without risking the chance of losing on appeal or having the trial judge reduce the amount.

It will be up to U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve to weigh the interests of the parties involved in the lawsuit against the interest of the public in having the record of the jury’s verdict stand. City lawyers said they plan to appear before the judge on Dec. 10.

The city battled Karolina Obrycka’s lawsuit for five years, arguing that former officer Anthony Abbate’s attack on her, which was caught on security video and eventually went viral on the Internet, was the action of an off-duty officer and not the responsibility of the Chicago Police Department.

As part of her case against the city, Obrycka’s lawyers argued a pattern and practice of covering up police corruption and misconduct exists in the department. Moreover, she argued, Abbate behaved with a sense of impunity because he believed fellow officers would protect him. The jury agreed in its Nov. 13 verdict.

Although the city argued in Monday’s court papers that the jury’s verdict was “ambiguous” and tied to the peculiar circumstances of the Abbate case, lawyers also wrote that they want the verdict removed from the record because it could influence other lawsuits against the police department, of which there are many.

Vacating the jury’s decision “provides the City with certainty that the judgment in this case will not be used to deprive it of its day in court in future cases,” city lawyers wrote in a memorandum attached to the motion.

The city also argued in the motion that the misconduct in the Abbate case happened several years ago and things are different now. The old Office of Professional Standards, which investigated the Abbate case, was renamed and reconfigured in the wake of the scandal. Also, city lawyers noted that there is a new mayor as well as a different police superintendent.

While the city’s effort to erase the jury’s verdict would not strike down the record of testimony in the trial, it does pose some risks to the public good, experts said.

“By allowing the kind of agreed-upon whitewash of the jury verdict it tends to increase the possibility of future bad conduct,” said Richard Zitrin, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, who has testified before Congress about secret settlements in police misconduct cases.

“The problem is that the lawyer representing the plaintiff has a duty to do what’s right for the plaintiff and that duty does not include a duty to do what’s right for the public as a whole.”

Obrycka’s lawyer Terry Ekl did not respond to calls for comment Monday. City officials also did not immediately answer questions about the move.

In the memorandum filed Monday, the city cited some legal precedents supporting the move to vacate the jury verdict. But federal courts have not always agreed with such motions when public misconduct issues are involved.

In a 2000 case in Virginia, after a federal jury found for a plaintiff in a police excessive force lawsuit, both sides filed a motion to vacate the verdict in favor of a settlement. In that case, the judge wrote “the public’s interest in judicial economy, finality of judgment, and the integrity of the courts outweighs the parties’ interest in having the verdict vacated.”

Lawyer Christopher Smith, who has represented several plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department, said claims of a pattern and practice of cover-ups are allowed into cases rarely and on narrow terms.

Applying the precedent from the Abbate verdict to other lawsuits is challenging, he said. However, given the circumstances of the case — the fact that Abbate was off-duty and in a bar — the verdict made a strong statement.

Because the jury decided that the department covered up for a drunken, off-duty cop attacking somebody in a bar, the case shows “it’s so well known to officers that no matter what we do, we know we’re going to get backed up,” Smith said. “No matter how far away (the alleged behavior) was from a police action, there’s always a police influence if there’s a code of silence.”

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