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State Held Liable in Early Release Of Felon Who Raped, Murdered

Mar 3, 2005 | New York Law Journal

New York state is liable for more than $5.5 million in damages in connection with two rapes and a murder that occurred after a convicted felon was mistakenly released from prison, a Court of Claims judge has held.

Steel v. State and Dillon v. State, 100531/100841, is a first-impression matter that attorneys said is generating queries nationwide.

It is a case where clerical errors - as opposed to an exercise of parole or early release discretion, or an escape - led the state to free a man who should have remained behind bars for years to come. Two women were raped, and one of them was killed, as a result of the ministerial mistakes by officials in Suffolk County and at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility.

At the center of the case is a persistent felon named Franklin Scruggs.

Mr. Scruggs was sentenced to two-concurrent 20-year-to-life terms in 1990 for second-degree assault and reckless endangerment. At the time, he had a lengthy record, which included arrests for attempted rape, attempted robbery, sexual abuse, assault, robbery, rape and kidnapping. The dual 20-to-life sentences reflected his criminal history.

However, the sentence for reckless endangerment was illegal and the Appellate Division, Second Department, sent the matter back for resentencing on that charge only. He was resentenced to a term that amounted to time served for reckless endangerment, but still owed at least 13 years on his assault conviction before he would be eligible for parole.

Although Mr. Scruggs was properly resentenced in 1997, a clerk recorded only that the prisoner had been sentenced to time served on the lesser charge, neglecting to note that the sentence for the assault remained. The clerk sent a commitment order to Great Meadow incorrectly indicating that the prisoner was eligible for release.

At Great Meadow, the inmate records coordinator who, records show, had read the Second Department order and should have been aware that Mr. Scruggs was still serving a 20-to-life sentence, apparently relied on the inaccurate Suffolk commitment order.

Mr. Scruggs was released and, in a two-week period in the fall of 1998, raped one Long Island woman and raped and killed another. Both victims, who encountered Mr. Scruggs in bars, had young children.

Wrongful death actions before Court of Claims Judge Alan C. Marin led to a series of key rulings, all of which were upheld on appeal, and a novel decision on apportionment of damages.

At the outset, Judge Marin held the state was not shielded by governmental immunity because the acts were ministerial.

After granting the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on liability, Judge Marin then grappled with whether and how to apportion liability. The state is statutorily exempt from joint and several liability for non-economic damages in cases where its culpability was less than 50 percent.

Here, the judge found the state more liable than the rapist/murderer.

He placed two-thirds of the blame on the state for unleashing a predator on society, and one-third on Mr. Scruggs. Consequently, since the state is more than 50 percent responsible, it is jointly and severally liable for the entire award, which adds up to over $5.5 million, Judge Marin said.

He permitted the state to offer evidence of comparative negligence.

The state showed that the murder victim apparently had ingested cocaine and alcohol before the attack.

It also presented evidence that the surviving victim had accompanied a friend, who apparently wanted to buy drugs through Mr. Scruggs, because she did not want to leave her friend alone with Mr. Scruggs and needed a ride home. Eventually, Mr. Scruggs got her alone and raped her. She reported the incident about two weeks later, after learning of the other woman's murder.

The court found "no evidence that would implicate comparative negligence by" either victim.

Damages Awarded

Jerrold S. Parker, a name partner with Parker & Waichman in Great Neck, represented the estate of the deceased victim. The firm also argued the damages portion of the trial, obtaining an award of $3.6 million.

Steven J. Palermo of Palermo, Palermo & Tuohy in Smithtown appeared for the surviving victim. Judge Marin awarded her $1.9 million.

Assistant Attorney General Denis J. McElligott defended the state.

James Flateau, spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services, said New York acted upon what it reasonably believed was an accurate directive from the Suffolk County clerk. He said the state should not be held responsible for second-guessing the tens of thousands of orders it receives annually from the local courts.

"Regardless of whose error it was, it was a horrible outcome, absolutely horrendous," Mr. Flateau said. "But that said the court is expecting the state to double check the work of the counties. We have to follow legal documents, and the legal document in this case was the sentencing order from the county."

Mr. Scruggs is now serving a life term at Elmira Correctional Facility. He will be eligible for parole in 2029, when he is 69 years old.

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