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A novel civil rights claim against a small Ohio town involving the botched recovery of a murdered woman’s body has been settled for $2 million and a pledge to improve the handling of domestic violence cases. The victim, Clarissa Ann Culberson of Blanchester, Ohio, disappeared in 1996 shortly before her boyfriend was to face charges of assault. Five days after her disappearance, a police search with dogs led to a junkyard pond owned by the father of Culberson’s boyfriend. The dogs indicated that there were human remains in the pond and identified Culberson’s scent nearby. But the police chief called off the search until the next morning and refused the county sheriff’s offer of assistance to secure the area. The next day, there were footprints near the pond and evidence that something had been dragged from it. Culberson’s body was never found, but the boyfriend, Vincent Doan, was convicted of murder. The Culberson family sued under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. Calling on case law from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that recognizes property rights in the body of a loved one, a federal court jury in February found that the government’s action “shocked the conscience” and awarded the family $3.75 million. Culberson v. Doan, No. C-1-97-965 (S.D. Ohio). Alphonse Gerhardstein of Cincinnati’s Laufman & Gerhardstein, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, said that the shocks-the-conscience standard has been hard for lawyers to successfully make and that this case establishes a benchmark. It helps, he said, that the police chief was prosecuted. He pleaded no contest to dereliction of duty and was suspended. Defense lawyer Lawrence Barbiere of Cincinnati’s Schroeder, Maundrell, Barbiere & Powers declined to comment. One key to the litigation was that municipal liability was never contested. The mayor admitted in his deposition and at trial that the chief policymaker for law enforcement searches and criminal investigations was the chief of police. In addition to the $2 million, the village will take additional measures to improve law enforcement in domestic violence cases. A statement from the mayor about Culberson’s case will be posted in the police department as part of a pledge to continue to look for her body. The town also will contribute $10,000 for a memorial to Culberson. Under the arrangement, law enforcement officials and town officials will be trained on domestic violence issues, and the town will spend $60,000 to establish an organization to evaluate and audit domestic violence services.

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