The Revival of Interest in Civil Lawsuits

A famous retired football player is put on trial for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend, but he is acquitted by a jury that is not convinced of his guilt

T A B L E 12.2 Percentage of Convicted Felons Placed on Probation Who Have Restitution Obligations in the 75 Largest Jurisdictions Nationwide, Selected Years, 1994–2009

1994 1996 2000 2002 2004 2006 2009 On Probation for: Violent crimes 15 15 14 15 15 9 22

Property crimes 34 40 33 32 26 24 37

SOURCES: Reaves, 1998; Hart and Reaves, 1999; Rainville and Reaves, 2003; Cohen and Reaves, 2006; Kyckelhahn and Cohen, 2008; Cohen and Kyckelhahn, 2010; and Reaves, 2013.

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beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution’s extensive but extremely complicated forensic evidence. The outraged families of the murder victims sue him in civil court. A jury finds him liable for the wrongful deaths and awards the two families more than $33 million in compensatory and punitive damages. When he announces that he is writing a book entitled “If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened,” the two families are divided over whether to go after the roy- alties to speed up the slow payment of the judgment. Thirteen years to the day after he was acquitted of murdering his former wife, he is convicted of taking part in an armed robbery of sports memorabilia by a group of men in a hotel room and is sentenced to prison. He appeals the conviction, arguing that his attorneys were improperly barred from asking pro- spective jurors about their knowledge of his previous acquittal in criminal court and the subsequent judg- ment against him in civil court, but his lengthy sen- tence is upheld. (Ayres, 1997; and Martinez, 2010)

The wife of a well-known television and movie star is shot while she sits in their car outside of a restaurant. He is put on trial but acquitted. The district attorney angrily brands him, “guilty as sin” and denounces the jury as “incredibly stupid.” The wife’s four grown children decide to sue the actor in civil court, contending that either he killed her himself or hired someone to do it. Although he did not testify at his murder trial, he is compelled to take the stand and answer questions in civil court. Ten of the twelve jurors conclude that he was involved in the slaying, and the judge orders him to pay $30 million to his dead wife’s four children. He declares bankruptcy and appeals the judgment. Several years later, a judge halves the damages he owes her children but rules that the jury did not act improperly when it discussed “sending a message” to celebrities that they can’t get away with murder, as they may have in other cases. (Associated Press, 2005; BBC, 2008; and Morrison, 2010)

A growing number of victims are no longer content to just let prosecutors handle their cases in

criminal court, especially if convictions are not secured. They have discovered that they can go after their alleged wrongdoers and pursue their best interests in a different arena: via a lawsuit in civil court.

Criminal proceedings are intended to redress public wrongs that threaten society as a whole. As a result, the economic interests of injured parties seeking restitution from convicts routinely are sub- ordinated to the government’s priorities, whether probation, incarceration, or execution. Injured par- ties seeking financial redress are directed to civil court. In that venue they can launch lawsuits designed to remedy torts—private wrongs—arising from violations of criminal law. Under tort law, plaintiffs (victims) can sue defendants and win judgments for punitive damages (money extracted to punish wrongdoers and deter others) as well as compensatory damages (to repay expenses).

Activists and advocates like to call attention to these often-overlooked legal rights and opportu- nities. Guilty verdicts in criminal courts cost offen- ders their freedom; successful judgments in civil courts cost offenders their money. Lawsuits can be successful even if charges are not pressed or if the alleged perpetrator is found not guilty after a trial in criminal court. Centers for legal advocacy and technical assistance have sprung up in many cities to make lawsuits an occupational hazard and a deterrent for habitual criminals (Barbash, 1979; Carrington, 1986; Carson, 1986; and National Victim Center, 1993).

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