Pubdate: Wed, 10 Jan 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Bill Miller, Washington Post Staff Writer


A federal appeals court yesterday struck down a $98.1 million judgment 
against the District government in the case of a police informant who was 
slain while attempting to assist D.C. homicide detectives, preserving only 
$1.1 million in damages.

The ruling was a huge victory for D.C. officials, who had warned in court 
papers that a decision upholding the damages could jeopardize the city's 
financial stability. The jury verdict was the largest judgment against the 
D.C. government, more than four times the previous record of $24.2 million 
set in a medical malpractice case in 1998.

But in a 42-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit of the 
U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously held that much of the judgment had no 
legal foundation.

The informant, Eric Butera, 31, was robbed and beaten to death in December 
1997 by three men as he tried to make an undercover drug buy at a Southwest 
Washington row house. Police set up the operation in hopes of developing 
information about the July 1997 killings of three people at a Starbucks 
coffee shop in Northwest Washington. But when Butera was attacked, no 
police officer was in sight. Police didn't realize he was in trouble until 
40 minutes later, when a neighborhood resident called 911.

Butera's mother, Terry Butera, filed suit in U.S. District Court against 
the D.C. police department and the four officers who worked with her son, 
alleging civil rights violations and negligence. The jury returned its 
verdict after a two-week trial in October 1999, ordering the District and 
the officers to pay $70,530,000 in compensatory damages and an additional 
$27,570,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge, June L. Green, also ruled 
that the District must pay almost $700,000 of Terry Butera's legal fees.

The appellate panel found that the police officers were entitled to 
immunity in the civil rights claim made on behalf of Eric Butera, 
eliminating $36 million of the judgment. The judges rejected Terry Butera's 
civil rights claim, which was based upon her right to her son's 
companionship. Because he was an independent adult, the judges said, Terry 
Butera could not properly stake that claim, which generated $34 million.

The judges also threw out $27 million in punitive damages assessed against 
the D.C. government, finding that D.C. law shields the District from such 

That left just two parts of the judgment intact: $530,000 awarded on 
negligence claims, and $570,000 in punitive damages levied against the four 
officers. The rejection of the civil rights claims takes the District off 
the hook for the legal bills, attorneys said.

The court's opinion was written by Judge Judith W. Rogers. Chief Judge 
Harry T. Edwards and Judge Merrick B. Garland joined in the ruling.

"This was a tragic thing that happened to Eric Butera," said D.C. 
Corporation Counsel Robert R. Rigsby. "However, we are profoundly grateful 
to the Court of Appeals for taking a look at this case. We're happy with 
the way the ruling came out."

Rigsby said the D.C. government would cover the damages levied against the 
officers. He praised the work done by the city's trial attorneys, as well 
as an appellate team led by former corporation counsel Charles F. C. Ruff. 
Ruff, a senior partner at the D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling, worked 
on the appellate briefs and argued the case before the panel. He died Nov. 
19, at age 61, after a heart attack.

Andrew H. Friedman, a senior partner at Covington & Burling, said the 
appellate ruling "reflects the common-sense advocacy skills Chuck Ruff 
brought to bear in the case. It is a fair result for the city that Chuck 
cared so much about, and everyone at Covington & Burling is proud of Chuck 
and the firm lawyers who worked with him."

Peter C. Grenier, an attorney for Terry Butera, did not return telephone 
messages left at his office. He could attempt to reinstate the judgment by 
asking the entire appellate court to hear the case or by seeking a Supreme 
Court review.

Eric Butera, who was trying to overcome a history of drug abuse, had gone 
to police with what appeared to be a viable tip about the Starbucks 
killings. He said he had overheard people in the row house talking about 
the slayings when he bought drugs there during the summer. Police gave 
Butera $80 in marked money and sent him back to the house to buy crack 
cocaine, hoping that they could later get a warrant to search the house for 
Starbucks-related evidence. But they set no time limit on the operation, 
didn't keep a constant watch on Butera and didn't equip him with electronic 
surveillance gear.

Butera never got into the house. He was attacked and beaten by three men 
with no connection to the killings, authorities said. Another man later was 
arrested and convicted of the Starbucks killings. He had no ties to the row 

The civil rights claim filed on behalf of Eric Butera contended that he had 
a constitutional right to be protected by D.C. police while working with 
them. The appellate judges said that the officers were entitled to immunity 
because the law on that issue is evolving, with courts issuing conflicting 
rulings on the question.
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