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Three Washington lawyers have taken a pro bono case under the District of Columbia’s rarely used Unjust Imprisonment Statute on behalf of a man released from prison last year after serving 13 years for a murder he did not commit. If the case goes to trial, it will be the first ever under the statute, attorneys say. Steven R. Dewitt Jr. was freed on Christmas Eve 2004 after District of Columbia Superior Court Judge A. Franklin Burgess Jr. granted him relief under the district’s Innocence Protection Act, finding Dewitt “more likely than not . . . actually innocent” of all charges. U.S. v Dewitt, No. F5548-91 (D.C. Super. Ct.). Michael A. Fitzpatrick, a litigation partner on Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s pro bono committee, and Akin Gump litigation associates David L. Axelrod and James E. Sherry, say that the action is among the first to be filed under the Unjust Imprisonment Statute, which grants compensation to people wrongfully convicted. “If this case proceeds to trial-there’s a good chance of it settling-it very well could be the first trial of an unjust imprisonment case,” said Fitzgerald, who noted that to win the case, his team must prove Dewitt innocent of the crimes of which he was convicted. A ‘perfect storm’ Dewitt’s conviction, which came “at a time when Washington was the most dangerous city in America,” was “a perfect storm of [allegedly] unreliable eyewitnesses, police misconduct-or even worse-and the bad guys trying to frame him,” Fitzpatrick said. Dewitt, who had no record of violence or gang affiliation and no connection with the victim, was allegedly framed for a murder by a gang’s enforcer, who drove the same kind of automobile, and police who wanted to close a homicide case, Fitzpatrick charged. His release is due in large part to an FBI agent identified in court papers as Vincent Lisi, who kept looking into the case after Dewitt was convicted and sentenced for the second-degree, gang-related murder of Paul Ridley at an Amoco station in 1992. Lisi passed on new evidence to Dewitt’s post-conviction counsel, Fitzpatrick said. Officer Kenneth A. Bryson, a spokesman for the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, said the department does not comment on pending litigation, and referred calls to the district’s Office of the Attorney General. Traci L. Hughes, spokeswoman for the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, said that the city and the office “are aware of the complaint and will respond accordingly before a judge.” In addition to the unjust imprisonment claim against the city, Dewitt has asserted common law tort claims for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution against the city, four police detectives and “other unknown persons,” all for as yet unspecified monetary damages. Dewitt v. District of Columbia, No. 2005CA009729B (D.C. Super. Ct.).

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