City set to pay $9 million to man wrongfully convicted and jailed in 1987 rape-murder case

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Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

The city could be doling out one of its largest-ever payouts tied to alleged police wrongdoing, assuming the Board of Estimates approves a $9 million settlement for James Owens, who was freed from prison in 2008 after DNA evidence cleared him in a 1987 rape-murder case.

Owens, now 57, sued the city in 2011, three years after DNA testing cleared him in the killing and burglary of Colleen Williar in August 1987. Owens, who served 20 years in prison before his release, alleged three Baltimore police officers, a city prosecutor who helped convict him and others violated his constitutional rights “by intentionally and in bad faith” withholding evidence, according to a Board of Estimates agenda.

The saga began with Williar’s rape and murder. Police found her body in her apartment in O’Donnell Heights. The next day, a neighbor named James Thompson called police to inquire about a reward. After initially telling police he found a knife outside that was used to kill her, Thompson changed his narrative, telling the officers he retrieved it by request from Owens. Relying solely upon Thompson’s statement—officers found no physical evidence in Owens’ apartment—they arrested Owens, and a grand jury indicted him for Williar’s rape, murder and burglary.

Thompson went on to change his story with an assistant state’s attorney before the trial, saying Owens took the knife from Thompson’s home and then returned it with blood on the handle and blade.

Midway through Owens’ trial, prosecutors ordered testing for a pubic hair found on Williar’s body; it turned out to be Thompson’s. However, neither prosecutors nor police told Owens’ defense team about the DNA evidence.

And when prosecutors asked the arresting officers to interrogate Thompson again, he changed his story five more times. The officers—a group that inspired characters for David Simon’s “Homicide: A Year on the Killings Streets” and “The Wire,” as noted by City Paper in 2015—went with the fifth scenario, in which Thompson said he and Owens broke into Williar’s apartment, and Owens killed and raped her while he masturbated at the foot of her bed.

But the officers didn’t tell prosecutors about Thompson’s many narrative changes, and Owens’ defense team was unaware of the hair linking Thompson to the crime. The jury heard none of it. Owens was convicted of burglary and murder (not rape) and sentenced to life in prison without parole. (Thompson was subsequently convicted in a separate trial.)

In 2006–after 18 years behind bars–the state granted Owens’ request for DNA testing of the hair. In 2007, the state granted him a new trial. And in 2008, after 16 more months of sitting in jail, the state dropped its charges against Owens.

He sued the city, officers and prosecutors three years later. A court dismissed his case, but Owens appealed, and a federal appellate court in 2014 upheld the merits of his lawsuit, clearing the way for a jury trial. (ProPublica and The Atlantic chronicled Owens’ legal fight much more in-depth in this report.)

The arresting officers from the 1987 case “dispute virtually all of the material facts alleged by Mr. Owens,” according to the board agenda. But rather than go to trial, Baltimore’s Law Department has decided to settle out of court.

In the spending board’s explanation, the city’s lawyers cited “the uncertainty of litigation, including the unpredictability of how a jury might evaluate the evidence in this case,” a lack of a cap on damages and attorney’s fees, the “sharply conflicting versions of the events at issue” and “the current legal environment surrounding the Baltimore City Police Department,” ostensibly a reference to the consent decree requiring far-reaching reforms in BPD’s ranks.

If approved Wednesday, Owens would receive $3 million by the end of June, $2 million by mid-July and four other $1 million payments through July 15, 2020.

This story has been updated to clarify that Owens was convicted of murder and burglary, but not rape, in 1988.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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1 COMMENT

  1. Owens was convicted of murder and burglary in 1988. After serving 20 years in prison he won a new trial on a technicality. The state held him for a retrial for another year. The state concluded because of lost evidence, witnesses and the prosecutor had died they were unable to retrial Mr.Owens. The State has never said that Owens was not the killer in this case instead they were just unable to retry him for this murder. It is interesting that James Thomas the other defendant, in this case, was never exonerated or awarded a new trial. So it’s not a case of Mr. Owens being exonerated or found not guilty in this case of murder. If new evidence is found Mr. Owens still may be charged at some point in this murder.
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