Saturday, February 12, 2005

City To Pay $943,380 in APD Rape Lawsuit

By Scott Sandlin, Journal Staff Writer

The dry precision of numbers capped an emotional 31/2-day trial Friday as a federal jury returned a verdict in favor of a woman who said she was raped by a police officer nearly three years ago.
The numbers reached into the high six figures, and they had a dollar sign attached. The eight-person jury awarded $69,880 in compensatory damages and $873,500 in punitive damages to Cynthia Seeley for civil rights violations by former Albuquerque police officer Christopher Chase.

City taxpayers will foot the bill.

The jury, which included a Clayton psychologist, a Raton teacher and a Sandia Labs employee among its ranks, returned its verdict after deliberating about three hours. They found Chase liable for substantive due process violations of Seeley, and for battery, assault and false imprisonment.
Chase, 30, faces trial in April on the criminal side of that equation. A lengthy indictment handed down in June 2003 charges him with the rape of Seeley and rape, battery, false imprisonment and tampering with evidence in cases involving 10 other victims. Chase declined comment as he and his wife quickly departed the courtroom.

Chase has denied the allegations.

Attorney Josh Harris, who with Greg Biehler is defending Chase in the civil litigation, also declined comment.
Seeley, 38, whose mother and adult son had watched the proceedings, sobbed after the verdict was read but made no statement to reporters.
Attorney Mary Han, who with Paul Kennedy represented Seeley, said the verdict was "extremely vindicating" for their client. Han said just being able to testify was a big step for Seeley, whose difficult personal history includes substance abuse problems, criminal convictions for conspiracy to commit forgery and cocaine trafficking a decade ago, and sexual abuse when she was a child.
"All she could think when they came back with the verdict was 'Oh my God, they believed me,' '' Han said. "I think all the victims in this case had to go through an assault in cross-examination."
Taxpayers will not only pay the $943,380 tab, but attorney fees as well. That consists of fees to Han and Kennedy as the prevailing party in a civil rights action, and attorney fees to Harris and Biehler.
"Frankly, I think you can sleep very well with that verdict," Conway told the jury in discharging them.
There are more costs to come in defending four pending lawsuits against Chase brought by other alleged victims.
The city would have preferred to admit liability and have a trial solely on the issue of damages, City Attorney Bob White said late Friday. But that call was Chase's to make, he said, because the city has a duty under state law to indemnify officers, and Mayor Martin Chávez announced a policy early in his administration of not settling police misconduct cases.
"Under the circumstances, I think we all think it's a fair verdict," he said. "Certainly in my mind there was no question about liability, it was a question about damages."
He noted the city had taken action to deal with the situation by firing Chase "when we became aware of activities in which he was involved." And he said no matter what policy the city had in place, it was looking at having to pay substantial damages on behalf of the officer.
"The way the mayor looks at it, where liability exists, he is not uncomfortable with the community making a decision on how much the plaintiff is entitled to," White said.
Seeley testified that Chase was among the officers who responded to her apartment after a neighbor called about a loud verbal fight between her and her girlfriend. The two were separated, with the suggestion that one of them leave to cool off. She said Chase offered her a ride, but took her to a parking area behind Bennigan's restaurant on Louisiana, threw her onto the seat of his police car and raped her. Then, she said, he threw her out of the car, tossed her purse after her and left her to walk home.
Harris said Seeley lied and that Chase was a victim of the "no good deed goes unpunished" variety, because he'd offered Seeley a ride.
"Chris Chase faces prison because of Cynthia Seeley's lies," he said.
Kennedy noted that only one of Chase's alleged victims had self-reported their encounters with Chase, and said the defense had branded them all, including two high school girls, as criminals.
But he also reminded the jurors of an instruction that permitted them to assume when Chase invoked his Fifth Amendment right and refused to testify that anything he said would be unfavorable to his case.

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