Will patience pay off in civil suit against prosecutors and police?

In February 2006, Claude Zain McCollum was convicted of murdering a Lansing Community College professor, but he walked out of prison last fall after Ingham County Prosecutor Stewart Dunnings III told the Michigan Court of Appeals a mistake had been made.

Yesterday, McCollum’s legal team walked into Ingham County Circuit Court and filed a 50-page civil complaint against almost everyone, including Dunnings, who had anything to do with his arrest and prosecution.

The complaint contains an impressive mix of constitutional and tort-based claims. Whether this actually goes anywhere remains to be seen. Most of the named defendants are prosecutors and police officials. Governmental immunity is a pretty thick shield to pierce.

But you can’t fault McCollum for trying.

According to McCollum’s complaint, when Dunnings asked the Court of Appeals in September 2007 to vacate the conviction, he said a new suspect had been identified. He also cited videotape evidence “showing that [McCollum] may have been somewhere other than the crime scene at the time of the crime.” The complaint alleges that what Dunnings didn’t tell the COA is that the defendants in McCollum’s civil complaint allegedly had known about that video evidence since March 2005, a couple of months after the professor was killed and McCollum had been arrested. The complaint goes on to say that the evidence was never disclosed to McCollum’s trial attorney, and the jury never heard about it.

At an October 2007 press conference to announce that he was seeking dismissal of the charges against McCollum, Dunnings again mentioned the new suspect. Later, the Michigan State Police went one better. They said the new suspect had confessed to the murder.

Last Sunday, the Lansing State Journal published an exhaustive report about McCollum’s saga, including the fact that his attorneys had a civil suit in the works.

On Tuesday, Jan. 22, Dunnings said he still believes McCollum is innocent but wants to keep open the option to recharge McCollum on the off chance that the Michigan State Police, who are resifting the evidence, might turn up something against him. For that reason, Dunnings said, he would resist McCollum’s efforts to have the dismissal of the murder charge converted from a dismissal without prejudice to a dismissal with prejudice.

Yesterday, as mentioned, McCollum’s suit was filed. Paragraph 123 of the complaint unambiguously states what McCollum’s lawyers think about Dunnings’ latest statements: “Defendant Prosecutors furthermore continue as recently as January 22, 2008 to threaten Plaintiff [McCollum] with possible prosecution, motivated not out of a search for the truth for the real killer, but for political or other improper means, if not continued animus toward Plaintiff, all to his significant detriment.”

The Lansing State Journal, in its Sunday report about McCollum’s case, said he “is not bitter about his imprisonment. If anything, he expects wrongs will be righted.

“‘I believe by being patient,’ the Lansing man said, ‘it will pay off.'”

Time will tell. He may need the patience of Job for this one.

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