Clark County to pay wrongly convicted men $10.5M

Lawsuit settled amid federal trial; insurer likely to be sued

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Clark County has agreed to pay $10.5 million of its own money to settle a federal lawsuit by two men wrongfully convicted of a 1993 rape and imprisoned for 17 years.

The county and attorneys for Larry Davis, 57, of Vancouver and Alan Northrop, 49, of Woodland settled the case Friday, nine days into a jury trial in Tacoma.

"You can't give them back the 17 years of life they lost because of sloppy police work, but they felt good that justice was done, and the truth came out," said Jack Connelly, Davis' attorney in Tacoma.

The county agreed to pay the $10.5 million settlement out of its own coffers because its insurer — Washington Counties Risk Pool — declined to pay any settlement or verdict related to the case. Interim County Administrator Mark McCauley said he'll consult with county commissioners Wednesday to finalize a plan for paying out the cash. The county's finance team is putting together multiple proposals, McCauley said. The settlement amount must be paid within 30 days, he said.

"We like to look out for the taxpayers, and we believe settling was the right decision," McCauley said.

Davis and Northrop will receive $5.25 million apiece. The settlement also authorizes them to sue Washington Counties Risk Pool for up to an additional $24 million, or $12 million apiece. Connelly and Tim Ford, Northrop's attorney in Seattle, said their clients plan to sue the insurer.

Ford said the county was not insured in 1993.

"It became insured in 2002 and 2003, and there were parts of the claim that dealt with county's handling of the case (in the years that the county was insured)," Ford said. "The county believed, and we agreed, that there should be coverage. The insurance declined. The county appealed it, and the insurance declined it again."

The settlement came Friday in the midst of testimony from former Clark County sheriff's Detective Donald Slagle and on the ninth day of a jury trial in front of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan in Tacoma. One of Slagle's archived files revealed that the detective had multiple leads to other possible suspects in the rape.

"It came out in court that he had never investigated any of the other suspects," Connelly said.

The victim, a housekeeper who was brutally raped while cleaning a house in La Center, had the DNA profile of a male under her fingernails and in her pubic combings that didn't match that of Davis, Northrop or any man known to her, Ford said.

"In my view, I thought the impetus (for the settlement) became pretty darn clear when the DNA evidence showed these were the wrong guys," Ford said.

But McCauley said the county had been motivated to settle the case well before the trial started and had been in negotiations for about a year.

Davis and Northrop were convicted of the rape in 1993 and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Post-conviction DNA testing of 27 pieces of evidence showed that Davis and Northrop didn't commit the crime and revealed DNA evidence that likely came from two other men, according to a press release from the men's attorneys. Former Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard vacated the two men's convictions in July 2010, after the men had spent 17 years in prison.

In their federal lawsuit, the men said the county and Slagle violated their right to fair trials by "suggestive eyewitness identification techniques and withholding important exculpatory evidence," the attorneys said.

"The fact this investigation led to the conviction of not just one but two innocent men shows how relentlessly biased it was," Ford said in a statement.

Davis, who has post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in prison, hopes to return back to school and become gainfully employed again, Connelly said. Davis could not be reached for comment.

Northrop told The Columbian in August that he works at Sunlight Supply Inc. and is reconnecting with his three children. He was also planning on marrying his fiancée, Shawna Smith. He was unavailable for comment on Monday.