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Finding that a jury simply got it wrong, a federal magistrate judge has ordered a new trial in a civil rights suit brought by relatives of a man who committed suicide after a police officer allegedly threatened to tell his family that he was gay. In his 23-page opinion in Sterling v. Willinsky, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arnold C. Rapoport of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said he was “convinced that the weight of the evidence in this case is against the defendants” because the testimony of the plaintiff’s key witness was corroborated by several credible and “uninterested” witnesses. By contrast, Rapoport found, the lead defendant’s story was backed up by just one “interested” witness who admitted that he did not hear the conversation between the officer and the man who committed suicide. In his closing paragraphs, Rapoport quoted a passage from a 1996 decision by the late U.S. District Judge Daniel Huyett III in Cacciavillano v. Ruscello Inc. that Rapoport said “eloquently” described his own sentiments in the Sterling case: “A reasonable jury could not have come up with a verdict for defendants on all of the claims. While it is unclear if the jury was guided by passion and prejudice or a misunderstanding of their duties, having had the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the witnesses, the court is certain that the verdict for the defendants on all claims was contrary to the weight of the evidence and allowing the verdict to stand would permit a miscarriage of justice.” The ruling is a victory for attorneys Alan L. Yatvin of Philadelphia’s Popper & Yatvin and David Rudovsky of Philadelphia’s Kairys Rudovsky Epstein & Messing who represented Madonna Sterling, the mother of the man who committed suicide. According to court papers, on April 17, 1997, Marcus Wayman, then 18, and Matthew Adamick, then 17, were parked in a lot adjacent to a beer distributor. Minersville, Pa., Officer F. Scott Willinsky grew suspicious because the car’s headlights were off and because the area was known as a high-crime area. After calling for backup, Willinsky was joined by Officer Thomas Holban, and the two officers questioned the young men. After searching the car and finding condoms, police said the men admitted that they were gay and had parked to have sex. Both were arrested for underage drinking. The suit alleged that at the station, police lectured the two men about the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual sex. Willinsky allegedly then threatened Wayman that if Wayman did not tell his grandfather that he was gay, Willinsky would do so himself. After the alleged threat, Adamick said Wayman told him that he was going to kill himself. Police later forced Adamick to tell his mother that he was gay. Wayman was released from custody later that night and committed suicide in his home. When Rapoport refused to dismiss the suit, the police appealed on qualified immunity grounds. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the police were not entitled to “qualified immunity” because the right to privacy relating to one’s sexual orientation was already a “clearly established” right at the time of the incident. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never “definitively extended the right to privacy to confidentiality of one’s sexual orientation,” the 3rd Circuit held that a long line of cases from the high court had clearly established a “zone of privacy” involving “matters of personal intimacy.” As a result, the 3rd Circuit said, the police “should have known” that forcing Wayman to disclose his sexual orientation would violate his constitutional rights since they admitted that it was “a matter of private concern.” But when the case went to trial, the jury handed up a verdict that cleared both Willinsky and the borough of Minersville. In a post-trial motion, Yatvin and Rudovsky urged the court to take the rare step of setting the verdict aside because it was “against the weight of the evidence.” “This court has the opportunity to correct a severe injustice,” Yatvin and Rudovsky wrote. “Rule 59 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] was intended to permit the exercise of discretion by the grant of a new trial in precisely this situation: where the jury’s verdict is inexplicable given the evidence and where it must have been the result of a serious misjudgment, prejudice or confusion,” they wrote. The plaintiff’s team said the jury was asked to decide a single issue — whether Willinsky had violated Wayman’s right to privacy. By finding in favor of Willinsky, they said, the jury “had to reject the overwhelming and credible testimony that defendant Willinsky had told Marcus Wayman that if he did not tell his grandfather that he was gay that the officer would do so.” Rapoport agreed, saying the testimony from Adamick was corroborated by several witnesses — including a high school counselor — who testified that Adamick had told them the same story within hours of Wayman’s suicide. That testimony, Rapoport said, challenged the credibility of Willinsky, who testified that he did not make any threat to Wayman. Rapoport found that Robert Connelly, a counselor at Minersville High School, “was an exceptionally credible witness” who had “no possible interest in the outcome of this case.” After viewing all the evidence, Rapoport concluded that the plaintiff deserves a new trial because “the jury’s verdict is truly inexplicable.”

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