Appeals Panel Considers Tamara Greene Case
November 28, 2012
The Detroit News
Appeals Panel Considers Tamara Greene Case
Judges appear open to some arguments by family's lawyer, one 'puzzled' by its dismissal
By Mike Wilkinson
Cincinnati — After seven years and thousands of pages of documents, the $150 million civil case brought by the family of a slain stripper against the city of Detroit and former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick may have come down to less than an hour of legal jousting before a three-judge appellate panel on Tuesday.
Norman Yatooma, the attorney for the family of Tamara "Strawberry" Greene, gave a spirited defense of an appeal he hopes will overturn a Detroit federal judge's 2011 ruling that tossed the case, in part because of a lack of evidence.
And the appellate judges seemed receptive to some of Yatooma's arguments, with one saying he was "puzzled" by Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen's decision to rule that the city destroyed evidence sought in the case yet then dismiss it for a lack of evidence.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it would be "very hard in the annals of cases" to find a similar ruling. "That's really a hard thing for me to understand," Sutton said.
A ruling on the appeal isn't expected for at least a month, and possibly three. And though Sutton had tough questions about parts of Rosen's ruling, he told City Attorney Linda Fegins, "I'm not saying you're wrong in this case, but the evidentiary rulings are puzzling."
Afterward, Yatooma said he was pleased Sutton zeroed in on Rosen's ruling regarding emails the city admitted that it destroyed after the court told attorneys to preserve them.
Rosen ordered the city to pay Yatooma $167,000 in legal fees.
"That was always incredible to us, and we're glad it wasn't lost on the court," Yatooma said.
The attorney has been fighting the city since 2005, claiming Kilpatrick and the city obstructed a probe into Greene's death for political reasons. Yatooma has investigated the possibility of a party at the mayor's residence and whether Greene may have danced there more than six months before she was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in 2003.
Tuesday's oral arguments provided no new details on Yatooma's case, much of it remaining under seal even after Rosen dismissed the case.
The appeal itself was filed under seal because of references to evidence that were never disclosed publicly.
That secrecy baffled Judge Eugene E. Siler Jr.
He asked Fegins why so much of the court record was kept private. "I'm wondering why in the world it was all sealed up," Siler said.
Rosen ruled that much of the evidence developed for the case could wrongfully hurt many people and ordered that depositions, including one of former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, stay sealed.
Cox investigated the long-rumored Manoogian Mansion party and concluded it was an "urban legend."
Michael Naughton, an attorney for Kilpatrick, defended Rosen's ruling, saying that the evidence on the record failed to prove Yatooma's claim of a cover-up.
"There was not one witness who came forward who said Kwame Kilpatrick obstructed the investigation of the murder of Tamara Greene," Naughton said.
Yatooma hammered at his belief that the case should be taken to trial.
He said evidence showed six police officers who investigated Greene's death were terminated or demoted after coming into contact with the case.
The city shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt when Rosen himself ruled it willfully destroyed emails, Yatooma said. That sends the message "you are better served to destroy evidence than to preserve it," he added.
The case was heard by judges Sutton, Eugene E. Siler Jr. and R. Guy Cole Jr.
Although Sutton asked questions about Rosen, he also questioned whether Yatooma could prove Kilpatrick had intentionally obstructed the investigation in order to hurt chances that Greene's heirs could bring a court case.
The case alleges that the city and the former mayor blocked their access to the courts, but Sutton called that idea "a little implausible."
Rosen focused his opinion and order on the homicide investigation, not the party.
He concluded there was not enough evidence to show municipal liability.
Yatooma took issue with Rosen on that point, saying the homicide file was "pillaged" and that Kilpatrick had a history to "destroy all people and all things."
The hearing before Sutton, Siler and Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., took place in a beautiful, wood-panelled courtroom with lush red carpet. Each side got 20 minutes to present its case and a green, yellow and red lighting system told them when their time was up. But no attorney got more than a few moments into the defense before the judges began peppering them with detailed questions that made clear they knew the case well.Fegins and Naughton declined comment after the hearing.