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News / Northwest

Judge in Seattle tosses lawsuit filed for man who served decades for murder he didn’t commit

By Mike Carter, The Seattle Times
Published: June 10, 2024, 7:34am

SEATTLE — A federal judge in Seattle has dismissed the remaining claims alleging civil rights violations and malicious prosecution by the estate of a man who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

After extensive briefing in Ian Simmers’ federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in a May 31 order concluded that Simmers’ estate had failed to show that detectives and prosecutors intentionally conspired to convict the then-16-year-old of the 1995 stabbing death of 35-year-old Rodney Gochanour and then led him into a false confession.

Simmers, who was released from prison in 2019 when his conviction was overturned, died in a crash last July. His estate, represented by his mother, Donna Berube, continued the litigation.

Simmers in 2021 sued the city of Bothell, King County and several officers and detectives involved in the investigation, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment protections against illegal seizure, malicious prosecution, negligence, manufacturing of false evidence and withholding exculpatory evidence.

In a 49-page order, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein rejected Simmers’ claims that detectives coerced him into a false confession over a 10-hour interrogation without a lawyer or his mother present. The lawsuit claimed the detectives used coercive tactics and fed him details of the crime to encourage a confession.

“This Court has … determined that Plaintiff has failed to present evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Defendants knowingly violated Simmers’ constitutional rights,” Rothstein wrote.

David B. Owens, the Seattle attorney who represents Simmers’ estate, said he will appeal the judge’s order to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are deeply troubled and disappointed by the Court’s order,” he said in a statement last week. “Ian Simmers faced decades of wrongful imprisonment as a result of a legal system that failed, and now the legal system has failed him again.”

Owens added that the order credits the officers’ word and disregards Simmers’ account — a decision he said should be left to a jury.

Shannon Ragonesi, the attorney representing the city of Bothell and its officers, praised Rothstein’s decision.

“The Court gave close and careful consideration to this case … and made the correct decision,” she said.

Simmers was arrested March 15, 1995, with a friend after a string of burglaries, arsons and other property crimes along the Burke-Gilman Trail in Bothell. He often bragged about being a gangster and exaggerated his criminal lifestyle, according to court pleadings. While being questioned, he boasted to the officers that he committed 13 other murders, according to the pleadings.

When two detectives asked Simmers’ 14-year-old accomplice in the burglaries about the Gochanour killings, the boy allegedly broke down and implicated Simmers, saying he had stolen a knife during one of their criminal forays.

In her order, Rothstein noted Simmers had been in frequent trouble with the law — he had gotten out of juvenile detention the previous day — and knew the system and what he was doing when he talked to the detectives following his arrest.

While acknowledging that police used “deceptive tactics” and other common investigative techniques in obtaining the confession, the judge said they were not coercive and “did not overbear Simmers’ will,” and she concluded that Simmers “knowingly and voluntarily confessed to murdering Gochanour” even if the confession was false.

“There is no doubt that he understood the potential consequences of providing a taped confession because he testified that he wanted to be charged with and tried for murder” to beef up his street credibility, Rothstein wrote.

While there is some evidence the 16-year-old’s actions that day “showed some susceptibility to police coercion,” the judge concluded “their relevance pales in comparison to Simmers’ stated desire to confess to Gochanour’s murder to cement his reputation as a gangster.”

She said “there is no evidence” the detectives were aware of his desire or “implanted Simmers’ ill-conceived plan.”

Based primarily on his confession, Simmers was convicted by a jury of Gochanour’s murder and was in prison until the King County Prosecutor’s Office was convinced to take a second look at the case. Concerns about the confession, case inconsistencies and new DNA evidence cast doubts on his conviction, and Simmers was ordered released from custody in 2019.

Police described the murder as a thrill-kill and never offered another motive. The lawsuit alleges detectives failed to investigate other leads, including an angry ex-boyfriend of Gochanour’s girlfriend, or talk to several people to whom he owed money.

Faced with these issues and the difficulties of retrying a two-decade-old case, prosecutors dismissed the case entirely. Simmers subsequently filed the civil rights claim alleging he had been framed for the murder and coerced into confessing.

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