Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lane County Settles Lawsuit with Creswell Student for False Confession Case

The Settlement

The Eugene Register Guard reports that Lane County has agreed to accept a judgment against itself for $20,000, to settle the lawsuit against it and a former deputy sheriff for violating a Creswell Middle School student’s rights by coercing him to falsely confess to shooting a neighbor’s dog.

The lawsuit was filed by the father of Levi Dunn on his son’s behalf in February 2010. It named Creswell School District and two employees as well as Lane County and a then-deputy sheriff.

In December, Creswell and its two named employees agreed to accept a judgment against itself for a total of $22,000.

The Lawsuit

In particular the lawsuit alleged that the middle school employees and the deputy interrogated 12-year-old Levi in the principal’s office until he falsely confessed to shooting a two-year-old female boxer named Rosie, which was shot and killed on January 21, 2008. The suit also alleged that the no one ever told Levi’s father that Levi was a suspect until after the interrogation and false confession.

During the interrogation, the lawsuit alleged, that “Levi held strong to the truth and even tried to ‘pinkie swear’ that he did not shoot the dog” but that the deputy “continued his attempts to force a confession.” Meanwhile, it alleged, that the Creswell Middle School employees “did not protect this vulnerable student.” During this meeting, it alleged, that Levi told the defendants that “the dog was nice and not mean” and that “he did not know anything about the dog shooting until someone knocked on his door and told him about it.”

The suit alleged that the “deputy repeated his questions” and Levi continued to repeat his answers even asking “multiple times to be able to leave to return to class.” The suit alleged that he was not allowed to return to class

Ultimately, the suit alleged that Levi eventually broke down and told the deputy what he wanted to hear, admitting to shooting the dog under continued pressures by the defendants. That same day, the suit alleged, the deputy and the CMS campus supervisor “paraded [Levi] through the public to his home and publicly had him demonstrate the pellet gun for all the neighbors to see.”

The suit went on to accuse the deputy of disregarding evidence that the pellet taken from Rosie’s body could not have been fired through the “smooth-bored barrel” of Levi’s pellet gun. Levi’s attorney C. Michael Arnold said that “this entire debacle could have been nipped in the bud early in the investigation if the deputy had eye-balled the pellet, which was clearly fired from a rifled barrel and not from a kid’s Pumpaster pellet gun. Anyone who has seen two episodes of CSI could have figured that out with the naked eye.”

This mistake was compounded, according to the lawsuit, when the deputy later ignored the state police ballistics report which concluded that Levi’s pellet gun did not fire the fatal bullet, leaving juvenile defense attorney Richard Mullen to force its release and secure a belated dismissal.

The Importance

Levi's Attorney C. Michael Arnold said that Levi and his father chose to file this lawsuit for two reasons: to clear Levi’s name, since he was still being picked on and called “dog killer” even after the juvenile case against him was dismissed; and to deter law enforcement from engaging in these misguided interrogation tactics in the future.

According to Arnold, “There are clear guidelines set by the Oregon Attorney General on how to interview a child witness, to protect the child from being unduly influenced and making statements that aren’t true. Child witness statements are even video recorded. Why aren’t these same guidelines in place for children accused of crimes? Aren’t child suspects as vulnerable to influence as child victims?”

The answer is “yes,” says Arnold, which is why Levi would only settle his case if a judgment was entered against the defendants. This allows for future victims of heavy-handed interrogation tactics to have definitive proof that this issue has been resolved in favor of another child, giving them a leg up in research and investigation. Typically, lawsuits are settled with a release of claims and a dismissal of the lawsuit, Arnold stated. Both the district and county could have attempted to negotiate a dismissal and a release of claims. However, here a judgment will be entered similar to what would have happened if the case went to trial and Levi won any of his claims.

Arnold explains, “From our perspective this case settled the way it did for the same or similar amount of damages as if we went to trial and prevailed with a jury. A judgment is in place and Levi’s name is cleared. And, the defendants had to pay a considerable sum of money, which hopefully will have a deterrent effect on other government agencies who engage in this sort of conduct at the expense of citizen rights and at the expense of the truth. The message should be clear: ‘Obtaining false confessions may make an investigation quick and easy, but it will eventually catch up with you.’”

Arnold’s law firm has also placed a model school district policy on their website to encourage parents to lobby their district’s policy committee to draft policies that protect their children. It can be found at

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