Wednesday, September 30, 2009

$2 million settlement for Broward man cleared by DNA

Mentally challenged man in prison 22 years for crimes he didn't commit will receive $2 million from the Broward Sheriff''s Office

By Paula McMahon

South Florida Sun Sentinel

10:18 AM EDT, September 22, 2009

The Broward Sheriff's Office has quietly reached a $2-million settlement with Jerry Frank Townsend, a mentally challenged man who was wrongly convicted and spent 22 years in prison for a series of murders that DNA later showed he did not commit, documents obtained by the Sun Sentinel show.

Under the terms of the settlement, reached with no fanfare, Townsend, who is now 57 but has the mental functioning of an 8-year-old, will receive a series of payments. He was paid $500,000 earlier this year and will receive $300,000 per year in each of the next five years.

The settlement in the civil rights violations lawsuit named the Broward Sheriff's Office, current and former sheriffs Al Lamberti, Ken Jenne and Nick Navarro, and former sheriff's deputies Tony Fantigrassi and Mark Schlein.

Broward sheriff's officials would not comment Monday and efforts to reach Fantigrassi were unsuccessful. Court documents show the settlement in the Broward civil lawsuit was reached in April.

In an e-mail, Schlein wrote "For me, this case has been a constant reminder that the criminal justice system is imperfect. It has always been imperfect, and it remains so today -- even with the dramatic advances over the years in forensic science ... Perhaps most importantly, it is a powerful argument against the death penalty. Thankfully, it was not imposed in this case."

Last year, Townsend settled a similar civil lawsuit against the city of Miami for $2.2 million.

Townsend's attorney, Barbara Heyer, who worked on the civil cases for more than seven years, declined to comment and said Townsend would not be commenting either. In previous interviews, she described the sheriff's officials conduct as "egregious." She will receive $800,000 in legal fees from the Broward settlement.

Since he was freed eight years ago, Townsend has enjoyed spending time with his family and getting acquainted with his young grandsons, said Donald Spadaro, who acts as Townsend's legal guardian because of his mental disabilities. "He enjoys going to their football games," said Spadaro.

Townsend was sentenced to several life terms and served 22 years in prison for convictions in six murders and one rape he didn't commit in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. He was arrested in 1979 in Miami on a rape charge, then turned over to authorities in Broward who charged him with six murders.

The case became a notorious example of how mentally challenged people are particularly vulnerable to making false confessions under pressure from law enforcement.

The Broward Sheriff's Office and its deputies "fabricated evidence, concealed exculpatory evidence, tampered with witnesses, and coerced a false confession by intimidation and deception from [Townsend], who they knew was a mentally challenged person," the civil suit claimed.

Then-Deputies Fantigrassi and Schlein obtained Townsend's now-discredited taped confessions. Fantigrassi has since retired and Schlein is an attorney with the state Department of Financial Services.

Townsend was set free in June 2001 after DNA indicated the crimes were committed by another man, Eddie Lee Mosley, who was known as "the Rape Man" in his northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. Mosley, 62, has been found incompetent to stand trial and is in a secure state psychiatric hospital in Chattahoochee, near Tallahassee.

Townsend was 27 when he was arrested for rape by Miami police. According to the lawsuits, Miami and Broward sheriff's detectives coerced confessions from Townsend, who has an IQ in the 50s, and turned on and off tape recorders to feed him details of the crimes. The confessions were rife with inconsistencies.

In the Broward lawsuit, Heyer noted that the murders continued after Townsend was arrested in 1979 and that this fact alone should have convinced investigators they had the wrong man.

Staff Writer Jon Burstein contributed to this report.

Paula McMahon can be reached at or 954-356-4533.

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