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Sanders settlement heads to Council

Thursday, July 29, 2010 by Austin Monitor

The tug of war between those who want the city to settle with the family of Nathaniel Sanders and those who think the city should go to trial on the matter should end today, but the most interesting arguments are likely to happen outside of public scrutiny as Council members meet in executive session with their lawyers.


Following that session they will make their decision. At this point, Council members Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman both say they are strongly in favor of taking the matter out of the trial arena. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez remains strongly opposed to the settlement and Mayor Lee Leffingwell is leaning toward a no vote.


The three other Council members — Chris Riley, Laura Morrison, and Randi Shade — have not said how they will vote.


Sanders was killed during what officials have described as a struggle for a gun that Sanders had at his waist in the early morning hours of May 11, 2009. Former Officer Leonardo Quintana was investigating a string of armed robberies when he approached a car in which Sanders was sitting.


Federal Judge Sam Sparks has dismissed the suit against the city but the city is paying to defend Quintana and would pay damages if the family prevailed in the civil rights lawsuit.


Lawyers for the city, Quintana, and the Sanders family negotiated a settlement of $750,000. If the Council fails to ratify it, the matter will likely go to a jury trial sometime in 2011.


Cole and Spelman both weighed in favoring the settlement Wednesday. Both indicated that a trial would not be the best way to get out the facts about what happened the morning Sanders was killed. Spelman said there was a risk that the city would lose at trial, incur more costs, and end up paying millions in damages to the aggrieved family.


He added, “The most important factor, however, is that we need to stop talking about who is right — regardless of who is right and who is wrong. We need to turn the corner and focus on how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again. And in order to do that, I think we need to put this behind us.”


Cole agreed, but as an attorney she said she is also concerned about the city’s reputation. Since Council agreed to let its lawyers negotiate the settlement, she thinks it is a mistake to now withdraw that approval.


“We place our credibility at issue … the cost of such a loss before the judiciary and our ability to engage outside attorneys will far exceed this litigation and last for many years to come,” Cole said.


Martinez remained firmly opposed to settlement. He told In Fact Daily, “I still feel the best outcome to this case would be a jury trial in federal court. I am confident this community can live with the outcome of any decision by a jury. I am not confident settling this case with a gag order would help at all.”


Morrison said she wants to do what’s best for the community. “I think there’s some misperception out there that a trial would be the best way to get the facts on the table,” she said. On the contrary, “trials tend to be places where interactions and exchanges are extremely constrained.”


“I think we need a dialogue,” Morrison said. “For me, the fact that Nelson Linder (president of the NAACP) and Wayne Vincent (president of the Austin Police Association) say they want to work together to lead a dialogue is a really positive step, and I hope that we can support them in any way possible.” However, she said she had not made up her mind about her vote today.


Martinez forwarded to his colleagues an email from Fred Hawkins, a retired assistant city attorney who worked on the case before retiring. In that email, Hawkins urged the Council not to settle the case. “Settlement will only bring you another lawsuit by the other suspect, Sir Lawrence (Smith).”


Hawkins argued that “the officer will win and I have tried a ton of these kind of cases. However, if you and the council believe settlement is in the best interest of the city, which I do not think it is, the amount is too high.”


Smith was injured in the altercation.


Assistant City Attorney Cary Grace says Smith has neither filed suit nor filed an official claim for damages, although an attorney has written a letter to the city on Smith’s behalf.

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