CLEVELAND, Ohio — A jury on Thursday awarded $5 million each to three East Cleveland men who spent two decades in prison for a murder they didn’t commit.
The 11 jurors ruled that former East Cleveland officers Vincent Johnstone and Michael Perry violated the civil rights of Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt during and after an investigation into them for a 1995 murder.
The verdict followed a trial that began Tuesday in U.S. District Judge James Gwin’s courtroom. The men argued that detectives withheld a police report of witness statements favorable to them and coerced a then-14-year-old witness into implicating the trio in the shooting death of Clifton Hudson Jr.
The men hugged their lawyers and loved ones after the jury announced its verdict Thursday. Wheatt said he felt “vindicated,” while Glover said “this was the next best thing to walking out of the county jail.”
The city and the detectives denied any wrongdoing. Gwin dismissed claims against a third detective, D.J. Miklovich, before closing arguments.
East Cleveland Law Director Willa Hemmons said after the verdict that there are “a lot of appealable issues.” Miklovich’s attorney Paul Cristallo said he was happy his client prevailed.
Glover and Johnson, both 40, and 41-year-old Wheatt spent the prime time of their lives in a prison cell. They were convicted of murder in 1996, when they were just teenagers.
They maintained their innocence, though, and got the Ohio Innocence Project involved in their case. A judge overturned their convictions and released from prison in 2015.
The judge also dismissed the cases against them the same year based on new evidence and after finding that a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor “maliciously inserted himself into a criminal proceeding.”
Johnson, Wheatt and Glover also sued the county and former prosecutors Carmen Marino and Deborah Naiman. The county settled with the trio for $4.5 million earlier this year.
The trio’s lawsuits said Marino and Naiman told East Cleveland police in 1998 to not release records relating to Hudson’s death to the defendants, who by that point had been convicted, and instead told the department to send copies of the records to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
The lawsuits have proved problematic for the cash-strapped Cleveland suburb of East Cleveland, and Gwin issued sanctions against the city in November 2017 after Hemmons suggested that the three men depose a former police sergeant who was in a coma, among other witnesses.
There is also the question about whether the cash-strapped inner-ring suburb will ever be able to pay a judgment against them.
Glover and Wheatt were represented by Elizabeth Wang and Mark Loevy-Reyes.
Michael Pasternak, a lawyer for Johnson along with attorney Brett Murner, said that regardless of whether the men ever received the money awarded to them, it was important to have their story be told and be a part of the public record.
That is a “powerful statement,” Pasternak said.