A man who spent three years in prison for murder before he was found not guilty of the charge at a second trial filed a lawsuit today accusing police in Springfield, Massachusetts of violating his civil rights.
A wrongful conviction lawsuit against two Springfield police detectives and the City of Springfield was filed by Charles Wilhite. It alleges the police officers caused his wrongful conviction by fabricating evidence and intimidating witnesses, according to Wilhite’s attorney, Howard Friedman.
" The police officers really put their thumbs on the scale of justice"
The suit filed in federal court in Springfield seeks unspecified monetary damages for the alleged violations of Wilhite’s constitutional rights that led to his arrest, prosecution, conviction and lengthy incarceration.
Wilhite was convicted of murder in 2010 for the shooting of a man outside a small convenience store in Springfield in 2008. He was sentenced to life in prison. Two witnesses later recanted their testimony, a judge vacated the conviction and Wilhite was found not guilty at a second trial in January 2013.
The complaint alleges police officers Anthony Pioggia and Steven Tatro fabricated incriminating evidence against Wilhite by threatening and intimidating witnesses to identify his picture in photo arrays. There was no physical evidence linking Wilhite to the shooting. Five witnesses told police the shooter was a light-skinned Hispanic man. Wilhite is an African American.
Friedman said the detectives ignored leads during the investigation and instead built a false case against Wilhite.
" In our system of justice, wrongful convictions don't just happen. People make them happen."
Wilhite, who is 31and has a young daughter, attended the press conference announcing the lawsuit, but did not speak on the advice of his lawyer. Vira Douangmany Cage, who is Wilhite’s aunt suggested he has struggled to put his life back together.
" Many people have said ' Charles you should move on.' It is rare to have an opportunity to wage a counter, to say this happened to me and it was wrong and it has caused me damage."
Sergeant John Delaney, a spokesman for the Springfield police, said he had not seen the claims made in the lawsuit.
" But, I am confident when the public sees the evidence in this case they will see the Springfield police department did act professionally and the officers who worked on this investigation did their job according to the law."
A number of community activists in Springfield rallied to Wilhite’s defense after his 2010 conviction and kept his appeal for a new trial in the public eye. The news conference announcing the lawsuit was held at the offices of Arise For Social Justice, a Springfield-based organization that advocates for the rights of the poor.