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Brenton Butler

Falsely accused teen settles for $775,000

Brenton Butler

Jacksonville City Hall and the family of falsely accused teen murder suspect Brenton Butler settled the Butler's civil lawsuit this morning for $775,000, family attorney Tom Fallis said.

The settlement followed three weeks of serious negotiations between the parties over the suit, which was filed in October. Among the allegations was that Butler was beaten by police and wrongly jailed for six months before being acquitted by a jury in the May 2000 robbery and slaying of Georgia tourist Mary Ann Stephens.

Fallis said the family decided to settle for various reasons, including concerns about how long the case would drag out and whether it could be proved under federal civil rights law. City officials are denying any responsibility for what happened to Butler under the action.

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Judge throws out teen's civil claim, chastises attorney

An angry judge temporarily dismissed a lawsuit filed by falsely accused teen murder suspect Brenton Butler against Jacksonville police a second time yesterday, saying its sloppiness and length make it read like a grade-school storybook.

"With all the garbage you've thrown in there, you're destroying the good case that your client may have ...," Senior U.S. District Judge John H. Moore II told attorney Robert Slama in court. "I think you've probably got a pretty good case if it is provable, and it's a darn shame he's got you for a lawyer because you are an embarrassment to The Florida Bar."

The judge gave Butler's attorneys 10 days to refile the 115-page civil rights claim and ordered them to limit it to 35 pages.

Butler, then 15, was tried in 2000 for the slaying of a Georgia tourist at a Southside motel. A jury quickly acquitted him amid allegations that police beat a confession out of him, and police and prosecutors later admitted they had the wrong man. A grand jury found no wrongdoing by police but sharply criticized their handling of the case. Two other suspects, unrelated to Butler, are awaiting trial.

Butler and his family are suing the city and individual officers. Slama's co-counsel, Thomas Fallis, said he has been in settlement negotiations with the city for about two weeks.

Slama had little to say after court about Moore's criticisms. "I think my reputation speaks for itself," Slama said.

In a telephone interview later, he named two law professors with expertise in civil rights litigation he said reviewed the pleading before it was filed.

"We anticipated that the judge would make this personal," Slama said. "You didn't hear him get into the substantive issues of the complaint because there are no problems with the substantive aspects of the complaint."

He told Moore in court the pleading was difficult to pare down because federal civil rights cases require enough facts to overcome a finding of immunity on the part of the police.

"I don't know how the court can evaluate these claims ... without understanding what happened because it does tend to turn on small facts," Slama said. "I would certainly like to file a shorter complaint. ... I don't know what the magic number of facts is."

Moore would have none of it.

"You've tried to allege so much garbage in here that there are tons of inconsistencies," Moore said, pointing out as an example that the time of the slaying listed in the complaint is 17 minutes later than the 911 call reporting the crime. "It can be done in a legal, scholarly way. ... Everything in your case has been done in violation of the rules."

Fallis said he didn't think yesterday's events would hurt Butler's case.

"The cause of action is still there," he said. "The court is telling us to trim down the pleadings to your best shots, not all your shots."

Fallis wouldn't criticize Slama but said in light of Moore's criticism he is considering bringing in additional counsel to protect his clients' interests. He said he will take a more active role in preparing the refiling and indicated Moore's limit of 35 pages could make the task difficult.

"In the event it gets dismissed for a lack of facts, we have a record for appeal," Fallis said.

Attorney Tad Delegal, who represents the officers, said he isn't worried about Moore's characterization of the suit as a potentially "good case."

"It's early and none of the discovery has been done. Every case looks good when all you see is one side of the story," he said. Neither he nor city attorneys would discuss Moore's criticism of Slama.

After months of publicity, Butler's lawyers filed a 128-page lawsuit in October alleging 49 civil counts against individual detectives, their supervisors and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. But Moore dismissed it as "one of the worst pleadings this court has ever read."

A 115-page amended complaint was filed in February and trimmed late Wednesday to 84 pages. But Moore said that claim was improperly filed.

Moore's frustration was evident yesterday as soon as he entered court and held up two law books.

"Before we start, I think we ought to go back to law school," Moore said. "I would suggest all of you, and particularly you, Mr. Slama, that when you leave this courtroom today, you get copies of both of these books. ... If you have them, you obviously haven't read them."