Man Freed From Death Row Awarded $5 Million

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

A man freed after 14 years on Nevada's death row for a murder he always claimed he didn't commit has settled a civil rights lawsuit for $5 million.

The settlement announced Tuesday by lawyers for Roberto Miranda, 61, dismisses claims against Clark County, the county public defender's office, and two former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department homicide detectives.

"Roberto spent 14 years on death row for an offense he didn't commit," said his Las Vegas attorney, JoNell Thomas. "There is no amount of money that will give him back those 14 years. But this does send a very significant message about the importance of having quality representation in death penalty cases."

Thomas joined with several lawyers from the Jackson, Wyo., law firm headed by Gerry Spence, who has won several civil rights cases dealing with wrongful incarceration, in pushing Miranda's lawsuit. The case, first filed in 1998, eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court which refused last October to intervene in the dispute.

Miranda's lawyers claimed an inexperienced public defender did next to nothing to help him avoid conviction and a death sentence in 1982. He was freed in 1996, after a judge found that the trial attorney had committed glaring errors. Thomas declined to say where he's living now.

Miranda's lawyers argued the Las Vegas public defenders' office "threw in the towel while Miranda sped towards his execution." They said the office routinely gave lie detector tests to new clients, and then used the results to decide how vigorous the client's defense would be.

Miranda, a black native Spanish speaker from Cuba, also claimed whites and members of the Mormon church got better legal help than minorities and non-Mormons.

Miranda claimed he was given a county-paid lawyer, Thomas Rigsby, who had been on the job barely a year and had never tried a capital case.

Miranda claimed Rigsby asked him to take a lie detector test, which was administered by an English-speaking examiner. The examiner concluded that Miranda failed the test.

Miranda's civil rights suit named Rigsby along with former Clark County chief public defender Morgan Harris and the county itself.

A federal judge threw out the suit, and Miranda appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based court first ruled against Miranda, but the court took the unusual step of rehearing the case. A divided 11-judge panel then ruled in February 2003 that Miranda could sue Harris and the county, but not Rigsby.

Miranda, one of about 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States in 1980 during what came to be known as the Mariel boatlift, repeatedly argued that someone else committed the 1981 slaying that led to his death sentence.

Ten years after the stabbing death of Manuel Rodriguez Torres, a federal judge appointed Las Vegas attorney Laura FitzSimmons to Miranda's case. FitzSimmons helped persuade a state judge to grant Miranda a new trial, and prosecutors later declined to proceed with the case.


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