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In wake of settlement’s failure, Sparks sets up new rules for City of Austin

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 by Austin Monitor

US District Judge Sam Sparks on Monday issued an order setting the trial in the wrongful death case of Nathaniel Sanders for November 2011. And, according to that order, “Any further settlement negotiations between the parties must include all members of the City Council.”


Perhaps more importantly, the judge’s order will prevent lawyers for the City of Austin from settling federal cases in the Western District of Texas within 25 days of a trial setting. Cases are often settled on the eve of trial. But for the City of Austin that will apparently no longer be an option, since Sparks has found that judges “cannot rely on the City of Austin (meaning the Council) to support the recommendations of its lawyers.”


Sparks issued his unusual order in response to the City Council’s rejection of a $750,000 settlement agreement with the family of the slain East Austin teenager. The Council voted 4-3 last Thursday against accepting the agreement struck by attorneys in the case.


Sanders died during a scuffle with then APD Officer Leonardo Quintana on May 11, 2009. Although the city has been cleared of wrongdoing and is no longer a defendant in the lawsuit, it is paying for Quintana’s representation and would pay any settlement or award against him should the family prevail.


Representatives of the Austin Police Association lobbied hard against the agreement, even though rejection of the settlement means that the former officer will have to go to trial.


When the proposed $750,000 settlement was made public on July 8, Adam Loewy, the attorney for the Sanders family, said he was pleased that officials were taking responsibility for “this unjustified shooting.” That claim, according to several Council members, made the settlement process far more difficult. It also caused the Austin Police Association to announce its opposition to the settlement and actively lobby against it.


Council Member Sheryl Cole, an attorney, was clearly worried about how the city would fare in federal court if the Council rejected the settlement. She told In Fact Daily last week, “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.”


Judge Sparks noted that he had cleared his civil and criminal docket for the week of July 19 in anticipation of a costly and time-consuming trial. Although the Council could have met after the time the settlement agreement gained media attention—July 9—and the date it was set for trial, it did not.


Sparks noted that there was a great deal of publicity and public discussion of the shooting and the settlement agreement between the time it became public and July 12, when counsel for the city and the family asked him to remove it from the trial docket.


Sparks said he “decided under these circumstances there could be no fair trial in Austin on July 19, 2010. Therefore, the Court accepted the lawyers at their word and removed the case from the July 19, 2010 trial, a mistake the undersigned will not make again.”


He added, “It is not clear if the parties will ever be able to obtain a constitutionally fair trial in Austin because of the pretrial publicity and public statements made by counsel and public officials to the media.”

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