Woman seeks money for freeing men
DES MOINES (AP) — Anne Danaher is largely responsible for freeing two Omaha men wrongly convicted in a 1977 murder and now seeking $100 million from the police officers they claim framed them for the crime, but as she watches the civil trial in a federal courtroom she wonders why she’s never been compensated for her years of work on their behalf.
Danaher, now of Kansas City, hopes Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee will ultimately remember she’s the one who pursued their freedom for nine years after they had exhausted appeals and attorneys had given up. If not, a lawsuit she’s filed could force at least one of the men to pay Danaher for her work.
“That’s what this is all about,” she said. “They do not want to pay me.”
The civil trial began Nov. 1 in Des Moines and could conclude next week.
Lawyers for the men declined to comment on Danaher’s role in the matter.
Danaher was 37 and a prison barber at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison in 1993 when she met members of Harrington’s family at the prison. That meeting and discussions with Harrington during 15-minute haircuts convinced her he was innocent in the killing of a former Council Bluffs police officer.
“I sensed an injustice based on my background of coming from Kansas City and growing up in the inner city,” Danaher said. “I’ve always had a passion for the pursuit of justice and I just took on that role and wanted to correct an error that I believed had been committed.”
Harrington insisted that he wasn’t involved in the shotgun murder of former police Capt. John Schweer, who was killed one night in July 1977 while working as a security guard for car dealerships in Council Bluffs.
In 1994 Harrington asked Danaher for help. She had no law degree and no background in criminal investigation, but she was determined to understand how Harrington could have been convicted with no physical evidence and on the testimony of several scared teenagers.
She soon discovered that Harrington had exhausted his appeals and without new evidence, he’d have to serve his life prison sentence.
Danaher, now 55, said Harrington agreed if he was ever freed, she’d be paid for her help. Harrington even wrote and signed a promise to share with her 20 percent of anything he might receive for a wrongful conviction. She considers this a contract.
Danaher quit her prison job to devote her time to researching the case, working with Mary Kennedy, a lawyer from Waterloo who helped inmates with appeals.
Kennedy said Danaher’s commitment and belief in Harrington cannot be overstated.
“It was many, many years of just dead end after dead end after dead end,” Kennedy said. “She drove everywhere and did everything. She slept in her car. She drove five times a month for 10 years to the prison.”
Although two decades had passed since the original murder trial, Danaher found key witnesses who said they had been threatened and coerced to lie by police investigators and prosecutors.
But it was in 1999 that Danaher stumbled upon the evidence that would free the two men.
She obtained the complete Council Bluffs police files in the Schweer murder case and uncovered police reports that had not been provided to the attorneys defending Harrington and McGhee.
The reports describe a white man who had been seen by witnesses near the car lot with a shotgun and that Schweer had confronted the man days before he was shot. The reports indicated that police had considered the man a suspect but stopped pursuing him after they began focusing on Harrington and McGhee, two black teenagers from neighboring Omaha.
“When I looked at those reports my jaw just dropped,” Kennedy said. “It’s unprecedented. Usually by that time the evidence is gone.”
Kennedy sought a new trial for Harrington based on newly discovered evidence. It took three years and several appeals, but the Iowa Supreme Court in February 2003 found that the withheld reports would have allowed Harrington’s defense attorney to present an alternative suspect in the Schweer murder. The evidence could have placed doubt in the minds of jurors about the guilt of Harrington and McGhee.
The Supreme Court reversed Harrington’s conviction. It took a few more legal maneuvers but by October 2003 both men were released after spending 25 of their 43 years in prison.
In 2005 they sued the prosecutors, Pottawattamie County, the investigating police officers and the city of Council Bluffs.
A federal judge found that the prosecutors violated the men’s constitutional right to due process. Appeals in the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2009 the court heard arguments but before it could rule, the county settled the case in January 2010 by offering Harrington $7 million and McGhee nearly $5 million.
Danaher sought to be paid but has received no money from either man.
Last year she filed a lawsuit seeking payment. A judge dismissed McGhee’s portion of the case in March, concluding she couldn’t prove he promised to pay her.
McGhee’s attorney, Steve Davis of Chicago, declined to comment.
The case involving Harrington is pending in U.S. District Court in Des Moines and is scheduled for trial late next year. Harrington’s attorneys did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Danaher said she and Harrington had grown close, but that ended once he was released. Within nine days of getting out of prison he was back in Omaha living a life that didn’t include her, she said.
Danaher has been in court daily during the trial, in which Harrington and McGhee allege two retired Council Bluffs police officers and the city should be held responsible for their wrongful imprisonment.
The city of Council Bluffs and the retired officers dispute allegations they framed McGhee and Harrington and contend they had enough evidence to take to prosecutors, noting the men were convicted in two separate jury trials.
Danaher watches lawyers representing McGhee and Harrington use the information she uncovered as they seek $100 million. Their attorneys will get tens of millions of dollars if the jury rules in their favor.
Kennedy said she finds it unbelievable that they won’t share any money with Danaher.
“They don’t even acknowledge that she did anything,” Kennedy said. “Even if they just reimbursed her for her expenses it would be a phenomenal amount.”