On Friday, the city of Charlotte agreed to pay Tim Bridges a record $9.5 million for the wrongful rape conviction that cost him half of his life.
What the 50-year-old Charlotte native says he really wants is an apology.
The settlement, by far the largest ever paid out in a complaint against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, will be underwritten by taxpayers. It is more than four times the $2.25 million the family of Jonathan Ferrell received in 2015.
The unarmed Ferrell in 2013 was shot nine times by a police officer whose criminal charges were dropped after a mistrial. While his family’s lawsuit focused on a split-second decision by the officer, Bridges’ wrongful conviction for the 1989 rape of an 83-year-old north Charlotte woman involved a pattern of “willful and malicious” behavior by at least four CMPD personnel, his lawyers say.
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In an exclusive interview Friday with the Observer, Charlotte attorneys David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer said CMPD detectives and crime lab specialists took a “tunnel vision” approach after concluding Bridges committed the rape. They then fabricated key evidence while withholding other information from prosecutors that would have weaken the case, the attorneys said.
Rudolf acknowledged that the size of the settlement for his client was satisfying, but only to a point.
He said the refusal by city leaders to apologize or acknowledge any wrongdoing – even as they signed a record-sized check – sends the wrong message to police and the community. It also ignores both a pattern of police wrongdoing that stretches back for decades, Rudolf said, and the culture among the city’s appointed and elected leaders that enables it.
“It’s almost stupid on the face of all that money they’re paying,” Rudolf said, as a weeping Bridges sat beside him. “They still can’t take responsibility. Why can’t they say, ‘We’re really sorry, Mr. Bridges, we made a mistake, and we’re going to make sure that it never happens to anyone ever again.’ ”
In 2015, the city’s statement in the Ferrell’s case acknowledged the family’s loss of a loved one. Friday’s response from City Attorney Bob Hagemann had a different tone.
“The City of Charlotte is unaware at this time of any scientifically sound physical evidence connecting Mr. Bridges to the crime, and in consideration of the former governor’s pardon and the possibility of a significantly larger jury verdict, the Charlotte City Council agreed to settle Mr. Bridges’ lawsuit for $9.5 million,” Hagemann said.
In the formal paperwork both parties signed, the city admitted no liability and said the agreement “is not to be construed as any acknowledgment of wrongdoing... which defendants continue to dispute and deny Bridges’ legal claims against them.”
The City Council approved the settlement in closed session Monday night. Council members met privately at least a half-dozen other times to discuss the case, which was set for trial in March, according to an official familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss them.
“We are talking about something that happened in a whole different era of technology,” said council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the city’s public-safety committee.
“Personally I can say that I’m not in a position to determine if he did it or not. He’s innocent until proven guilty, and with today’s technology he might not have been proven guilty. He was in jail for 25 years for a crime he might not have committed.”
Bridges originally demanded $25 million. In coming up with a settlement number, council members considered other cases in which juries returned verdicts in wrongful conviction cases. Last month in Baltimore, a federal jury awarded a man $15 million for spending 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Besides the city, all of the other defendants – an unnamed police captain in charge of CMPD’s felony investigations bureau at the time of the rape, former police detective Cheryl Horner, and police crime lab specialists Elinos Whitlock and Kathleen Ramseur – have since retired from CMPD.
Since the city was not insured against such cases at the time, it will pay the settlement out of a $31 million “risk” account accumulated from taxpayer money.
Bridges was found guilty of rape in 1991. His conviction was later discovered to be among 2,500 cases nationwide tainted by flawed testimony given by FBI-trained specialists.
During Bridges’ trial, a CMPD expert told the jury that there was a 1 in 1,000 chance that hair found at the rape scene – the only physical evidence tying the defendant to the crime – belonged to someone else.
Bridges’ resulting conviction took place a decade before the widespread use of DNA evidence in criminal trial. In 2015, according to the city’s statement, the FBI concluded that agency-trained investigators “often gave testimony that went beyond the limits of science,” putting more weight on hair comparisons than was “scientifically appropriate.”
CMPD’s improper behavior may have gone beyond that. In court filings, Rudolf and Pfeiffer cited complaints filed by five separate Mecklenburg judges in the years after Bridges’ conviction over the failure of CMPD investigators to turn over defense-friendly evidence to the district attorney.
Rudolf said that culture persists today in parts of CMPD, and he called on the newly elected city council to send a message to CMPD leaders and city management “that it will not be business as usual any longer.”
Bridges’ conviction was overturned in 2015. A year later, the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges. A year to the day after Gov. Pat McCrory pardoned Bridges, he signed his name to the settlement, ending his complaint against those who had helped put in prison.
There, Bridges said, he was raped by another inmate and had to fend off regular sexual assaults and other random violence. He said a debilitating back injury was never treated, leaving him unable to work. He lost his grandparents and his father. His mother, Rose Mary, died six months before his release.
“That’s 25 years of my life I would have spent with her,” Bridges said, covering his eyes as he talked. “That’s the only thing I’m not going to forgive the city for.”
Now living in Lexington, Bridges said the money means he won’t have to worry about how he will take care of himself, but added that it was impossible for him to put a dollar sign on what he has lost.
Afterward, Bridges shook the hands of his lawyers, walked down a flight of stairs and out the front door of the Dilworth office. Landa Carter, his former sweetheart from his West Charlotte High School days, was waiting on the stoop.
He carries a high school photo of her in his wallet, and the couple plans to marry at some point. Now they hugged, and kept hugging, before walking to Bridges’ car.