WORCESTER — After a former Worcester man was awarded millions from a civil lawsuit against two Worcester police officers, the officers’ attorneys on Wednesday asked a federal judge to overturn the verdict against their clients.
On September 30, a federal jury awarded Natale Cosenza $8 million after finding he was wrongly imprisoned for 16 years based on evidence fabricated by Worcester Police.
Cosenza’s conviction for a violent home burglary in 2000 was overturned in 2016. The US District Court jury found that he was wrongly convicted based on evidence that was “knowingly fabricated” and suppressed by Detective Kerry F. Hazelhurst.
The case revolved around a home invasion in August 2000 in which an out-of-town woman was beaten after being woken by a man in her bedroom at night.
Cosenza has always maintained his innocence and testified that he turned down a plea deal before going to court on that basis.
Cosenza lived in a building next to the victim’s in the same apartment complex.
Neighbors had told responding officers they were suspicious of Cosenza, and court records show Hazelhurst built a lineup around men who resembled Cosenza and showed it to the woman.
In court documents, attorneys for Hazelhurst and Detective John Doherty requested that US District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman reverse the verdict of the September trial. Alternatively, the attorneys asked Hillman to retry the case.
In the memorandum, Wendy L. Quinn, an attorney for the officers, wrote that under applicable law, the case should not have gone to court. During a Zoom court hearing on Tuesday, Quinn said the new trial was granted because of a change in the evidence identifying eyewitnesses and jury instructions, not because new evidence emerged.
No new evidence to exonerate the plaintiff
“There was no new evidence exonerating the plaintiff,” Quinn said. “However, 20 years later, in a completely different political climate, the plaintiff in civil proceedings was given the opportunity to bite the apple again.”
Additionally, Quinn argued that there was insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to rule in Cosenza’s favour. She wrote that the evidence at the trial was overwhelmingly inconsistent with the verdict and that no sane jury could have returned that verdict.
According to the officers’ lawyers, the main flaw in the verdict stems from the introduction of photographic evidence at the trial.
Quinn wrote that despite granting officers qualified immunity with respect to the photo-arrangement process, Cosenza’s attorneys settled the testimony of two experts who were not involved in the criminal trial, repeatedly arguing that the officers intentionally violated the photo-array procedures had.
Quinn argued that Cosenza’s attorneys took advantage of the lack of photographic evidence restrictions to misconstrue what allegations the jury would have to decide at the trial. She added that Cosenza’s attorneys also confused the jury over whether it was their duty to hold officers accountable for mistakes in the photo array trial.
Additionally, Quinn wrote that the jury was confused and misled by DNA evidence and a pair of black men’s athletic shorts found in the victim’s bedroom.
During the trial, the officers’ attorneys argued that the jury should not be allowed to consider evidence relating to the shorts, since summary judgment had already ruled that a jury would not have the authority to find that Hazelhurst had information about the search held back after shorts.
Cosenza was allowed to argue that the shorts help relieve him.
In a memorandum opposing the motion to vacate the trial, Locke Bowman, an attorney for Cosenza, wrote that the jury’s findings were fully supported by evidence, and he explained how both the series of photos and the short film evidence could be used to reasonably to infer Cosenza’s innocence.
Hilly Fight ahead for defense
On Wednesday, Bowman said the defense faced an “uphill battle” to overturn a jury verdict.
“The limited reach of post-trial requests reflects a belief that the processes worked properly to achieve an equitable outcome,” Bowman said. “The jury… presumably followed the court’s orders.”
The officers’ attorneys also wrote that during his direct questioning, Cosenza made false statements and committed perjury.
Cosenza testified that he did not admit his guilt in the crimes during a parole board hearing that he believed his refusal to admit guilt was the reason he was not paroled.
According to Quinn, the defense obtained three records of parole board decisions during the trial, and a recording from a 2014 hearing showed that Cosenza admitted to the crime before the parole board.
Bowman wrote that the recordings were “hearsay” and that Cosenza could not remember his exact words, but said he never admitted he committed the attack on the parole board.
Hillman said he will review both sides’ arguments on Wednesday.
16 years in prison
Cosenza served 16 years in prison until his conviction was overturned after a judge ruled he was denied the right to a fair trial.
Prosecutors declined to retry the case after another judge ruled that the identity of the Cosenza victim had been obtained by police in an inappropriately suggestive manner and could not be used in evidence.
The jury heard September’s civil trial for five days, with city attorneys arguing that the police acted appropriately.
The jury ruled that Cosenza had proved by a preponderance of evidence that Hazelhurst had suppressed and knowingly fabricated evidence in the case and that those actions resulted in Cosenza being wrongly convicted.
In addition, the jury ruled that Doherty did not suppress or knowingly fabricate any evidence. However, the jury also found that Hazelhurst and Doherty “conspired to violate[Cosenza’s]right to a fair trial by suppressing or fabricating material evidence.”
The jury found that at least one of the officers — it did not specify which one — committed “an act” to carry out the conspiracy.
In the memorandum, the officers’ attorneys wrote that Cosenza provided no concrete evidence of conspiracy or demonstrated a “community consensus” between the two detectives regarding conspiracy. Quinn wrote that the jury misconstrued Doherty’s presence in managing the photo series against him.
The jury awarded Cosenza $8 million in compensatory damages, as well as punitive constitutional damages of $25,000 against Hazelhurst and $5,000 against Doherty.
At the time, attorneys for the officers told Hillman they intended to file a motion to have the verdict set aside.
Hillman had narrowed the scope of the case in recent years.
The original lawsuit named eight police officers as defendants, as well as the city itself. Hillman dismissed all of the defendants except Hazelhurst and Doherty, ruling that they were entitled to qualified immunity on some of the counts.