Suit in firebombing is dismissed

Judge rules that city, state leaders can't be held liable in 2002 deaths of East Baltimore family

June 01, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge has dismissed a $14 million lawsuit accusing city and state leaders of failing to protect the Dawson family from the 2002 firebombing that killed the couple and their five children.

Judge M. Brooke Murdock struck down an argument from survivors that the city created danger by soliciting participation through its "Believe" campaign and by encouraging residents to report criminal activity to police.

The judge ruled that the advertisements were directed at all Baltimore residents and not to the Dawsons specifically.

Angela and Carnell Dawson's East Baltimore rowhouse was firebombed Oct. 16, 2002, killing all seven family members, after family members repeatedly called police to complain about drug activity. The attack outraged the city and focused national attention on the issue of witness intimidation.

Darrell L. Brooks is serving a life sentence in prison without parole in the firebombing.

In her ruling, Murdock said city and state leaders could not be held liable for the deaths.

"If any one person's action was extreme, outrageous and perpetuated with reckless disregard of potential distress, it was Darrell Brooks' act of setting the Dawson home ablaze," Murdock wrote.

The judge ruled that there was no special relationship between the Dawson family and the city or state because family members were not in custody. Therefore, she ruled, "the State is not obligated to protect individuals from private violence."

Attorneys for the Dawson family could not be reached for comment. They were represented by the law firm of the late Johnnie Cochran, best known for representing O.J. Simpson, and by the high-powered Washington law firm Arnold & Porter

The lawsuit was filed against the state, the mayor of Baltimore, the City Council, the state's attorney, the city Police Department, the police commissioner and one of his predecessors, and numerous police officers.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that despite the tragic nature of the events, the city did not bear responsibility for them.

"Of course, it's a terrible human tragedy, but the court concluded, and correctly so, that there was no liability on the part of the city," Tyler said. "This was a terrible criminal act that was committed and a terrible loss for this community and this family, but that doesn't convert it to a legal cause of action against the city."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, called the ruling a vindication of Assistant State's Attorney Katherine Moxley, who she said followed protocol by offering the Dawson family assistance.

"We were very, very attentive to the emerging issue of intimidation of witnesses, and certainly [State's Attorney Patricia C.] Jessamy has worked very hard since the Dawson tragedy to bring community awareness to this frightening issue," Burns said.

In addition to $14 million in damages, the suit sought to have the city bolster its "Believe" campaign with public safety programs, improve police officers' response to protecting witnesses and require that the city's prosecutors follow its witness protection procedures.

The Dawson firebombing followed a string of attacks in the preceding months. Bottles and bricks were thrown through the family's windows, Angela Dawson was assaulted, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the family's house.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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