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Crowe Family Reaches Settlement with Cities of Escondido and Oceanside

The family of slain 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe agreed Friday to accept $7.25 million to settle a federal civil-rights case filed against the cities of Escondido and Oceanside.  The settlement was announced at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller, just 10 days before the case was to go to trial on Oct. 31. The Crowe settlement follows a related settlement earlier this month by the family of Aaron Houser for about $4 million, according to a source with knowledge of the case.

Stephanie’s bloody body was discovered in the bedroom of her family’s Escondido home on Jan. 21, 1998.   Two days after Stephanie was found stabbed to death, Stephanie’s brother, Michael Crowe, 14 at the time, was arrested in the killing. His 15-year-old friends, Aaron Houser and Joshua Treadway, were arrested soon afterward.

The police performed grueling interrogations of the teenagers.  The teenagers were strip-searched and photographed nude or seminude by police, and had a gun pointed at Stephen Crowe’s chest when he wanted to leave the station.  Following hours of grueling interrogations by Escondido police and an Oceanside police officer called in to help, authorities said Crowe and Treadway confessed. The teenagers were arrested and housed in juvenile hall for over 6 months awaiting trial.

About a year after the killing, on the eve of the boys’ trial, all charges against them were dropped. DNA testing showed that Stephanie’s blood was on the sweatshirt of a transient who had been in her neighborhood the night of the slaying, acting oddly and banging on doors.  That man, Richard Tuite, eventually was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 17 years in prison. His conviction was overturned last month by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The federal civil case began when the three families filed a civil-rights lawsuit in 1999, saying police falsely arrested the teenage boys and violated their rights against self-incrimination.

In 2004, U.S. District Judge John Rhoades threw out the bulk of the case. Rhoades ruled that while the interrogations were harsh, they could not be considered coerced because they were never used against the youths at a criminal trial.

In 2010, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived key portions of the lawsuit. “One need only read the transcripts of the boys’ interrogations, or watch the videotapes, to understand how thoroughly the defendants’ conduct in this case ‘shocks the conscience,’” wrote Judge Sidney R. Thomas, citing the legal standard for a coerced confession.

That ruling put the case back on track and setup the settlement. The Crowe family — father Stephen, his wife, Cheryl, and their children, son Michael and daughter Shannon — agreed to the settlement via a hastily arranged conference call into the courtroom.

The cities’ insurance companies will pay the settlement, lawyers said. In agreeing to the deal, neither Escondido, Oceanside nor the individual detectives named in the suit admitted liability.

Many people wonder whether this settlement will change the way police investigate cases.  Escondido Mayor Sam Abed said the city wanted to resolve the case and “put it behind us.” But he emphasized that the city admitted no wrongdoing.  “I can tell you we are not accepting any guilt in this case,” Abed said. “We support our department and the way the police investigated this case. We might never know what happened in this particular crime.”

This case took over 14 years to resolve.  No amount of money can compensate Michael Crowe, Aaron Houser, and Joshua Treadway for the shame, embarassment, and damage to their character they have experienced over the last 14 years.  In addition, many people still believe that they are the ones responsible for Stephanie Crowe’s death.  However, the $7.25 million dollars the Crowe family will receive is a start.  Hopefully, the Crowe family can begin to put this tragic event in the past and move forward with the lifes.  However, that may be difficult as the individual found guilty of murder of their daughter, David Tuite’s, conviction was overturned last month by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That means Tuite could get a new trial.