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Oakland won’t have to pay a cent to a man who says he spent more than five years behind bars because of testimony by a “Riders” cop who is now a fugitive. A federal judge spiked the suit, which attorneys thought would result in one of the priciest Riders settlements. Vernon Joseph gave up his right to sue when he made an unusual agreement with the Alameda County district attorney’s office, Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled last month. Since Joseph assured a judge in 2001 that he had no qualms about the deal, there is no reason to let the ex-con break it now, Henderson concluded. “Even though the court is somewhat sympathetic to Joseph’s case, the public interest in ensuring the integrity of the judicial process outweighs the interests weighing against enforcement of the agreement,” the judge wrote in a June 15 order. If Joseph did have doubts about the deal, then he lied when he said otherwise, Henderson said. “Joseph admits lying to the judge at his April 23, 2001, hearing and now wants to get away with it. As a policy matter, the court cannot condone such behavior.” Oakland’s outside counsel, Gregory Fox, praised the ruling. Had Joseph been able to renege on the deal, “the integrity of the judicial process where people waive their rights in open court would be open to attack,” said the Bertrand, Fox & Elliot name partner. Joseph’s was one of 124 cases reviewed and dismissed by the district attorney’s office after rookie Oakland cop Keith Batt blew the whistle on a band of rogue police officers who called themselves the “Riders.” Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung and Francisco Vazquez were fired from the Oakland police department and criminally charged. Mabanag, Hornung and Siapno are being re-tried for planting evidence, beating up suspects and lying in police reports. Police believe that Vazquez has fled to Mexico. Joseph, a parolee convicted of weapons charges, was serving an eight-year sentence when the scandal broke. He asked to have his case dismissed because it was based on Vazquez’s testimony. An officer who backed Vazquez’s account was arrested in 2002 for soliciting prostitution while on duty. When the officer was arrested, drugs, cash and a scale were seized from his undercover vehicle. The DA agreed to support Joseph’s immediate release if he promised not to sue the city. If the inmate didn’t take the deal, Joseph, who had already served five years in prison, could try a habeas petition on his own. Joseph agreed to the deal and was set free. According to Fox, the DA had insisted that Joseph release the city from liability because, unlike the other tainted Riders cases, Joseph had been convicted by a jury. The lawsuit ban was a way to “uphold and protect the criminal justice process,” said Fox. Nevertheless, Joseph later filed a civil rights suit against Oakland. Joseph’s attorneys, John Burris and James Chanin, argued that their client’s deal with the DA was sprung on him at the last minute and “coerced” because Joseph was desperate to get out of prison. Although the inmate told Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jon Rolefson in open court that he understood the deal, Joseph claims he did so because Assistant Public Defender Raymond Keller told him that the lawsuit ban was illegal so he could sue anyway. The public defender’s office disputes Joseph’s account. Judge Henderson ruled that Joseph’s agreement with the DA was “voluntary” and “in the public interest.” It’s unlikely that Joseph was misled because the inmate was “a repeat player in the criminal justice system” who knew the consequences of waiving his rights, Henderson wrote. Also, Joseph could have rejected the deal and tried to get habeas relief on his own while he was in prison, the federal judge wrote. Judge Rolefson, who meticulously reviewed the deal in court, gave Joseph plenty of chances to speak up if he had any concerns. While the arrest of the other officer on the case is disturbing, it doesn’t imply that the cop lied in Joseph’s case, Henderson said. Chanin, one of Joseph’s attorneys, said he was still deciding whether to appeal. He also said that the DA who crafted Joseph’s deal asked the inmate not to sue because he served more time behind bars than any other Riders victim. Joseph’s civil suit would have been costly to the city. “I don’t think he got a fair deal given what had happened to him,” Chanin said. “If I were his lawyer, I would have told him not to do this.” Keller, the public defender who advised Joseph to take the deal, would say little. “I think the guy was innocent, and the cops lied and got him convicted,” Keller said. Judge Henderson mused in his opinion that Joseph might have grounds for a malpractice claim. Oakland has already agreed to pay $11 million to 119 plaintiffs who alleged that the Riders and other officers violated their civil rights. The city is also implementing a series of police reforms. Seven others civil rights suits, which were filed by plaintiffs after the first settlement was reached, are still pending, attorneys say.

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