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Civil rights claim against prosecutor goes forward

Peter Vieth//August 7, 2013

Civil rights claim against prosecutor goes forward

Peter Vieth//August 7, 2013//

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Westmoreland_SealA Richmond federal judge has refused to throw out allegations of misconduct against a Virginia prosecutor in a civil lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was arrested and jailed for almost a year based on false accusations supported by trumped-up evidence.

Acquitted of attempted murder and other charges by a Westmoreland County jury in 2012, Peter Willis turned around and sued the police officer and prosecutor who pursued the charges against him. Willis claims the law enforcement officials coached false testimony from his accusers and fabricated an incriminating photograph.

Despite strong immunity protection for prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson decided last month Willis’ “barebones claim” was enough to allow his civil case to go forward against Westmoreland County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Edward J. O’Shea III.

Willis’ legal odyssey arose from a turbulent romance. In 2011, Willis was a public school employee preparing for the Virginia bar exam when he was charged with trying to kill his girlfriend, a mother of four who still had a relationship with her estranged husband, according to his suit.

Willis claims the emotionally troubled girlfriend had cut herself with a razor knife in a “self-harm” incident at his home. Shortly afterward, when he determined to break off the relationship and to report the girlfriend’s disclosures about her husband’s child abuse, the girlfriend went to police saying Willis had tried to kill her, according to the suit.

Willis protested his innocence and offered evidence, but authorities backed the girlfriend’s account. Denied bond, Willis was held in jail for 349 days, according to his lawsuit.

A jury took less than 90 minutes to acquit him after a two-day trial in May 2012, his complaint says.

In his civil lawsuit, Willis said O’Shea conspired with a police officer to fabricate evidence, including falsely presenting the girlfriend’s self-inflicted wounds as “ligature marks” and offering a crime scene photo suggesting damage at Willis’ home that was not actually there.

Those claims against O’Shea survive absolute and qualified immunity for prosecutors, Hudson said, although he repeatedly made reference to the “skeletal assertions” of Willis’ lawsuit.

Hudson scheduled a jury trial for Feb. 10.

Besides O’Shea, Willis is suing a Colonial Beach police lieutenant and his father, the former town police chief. Other defendants include the girlfriend, her husband and a social worker.

Willis is represented by Shannon L. Dillon of Richmond, who declined to comment. O’Shea is represented by Alexander Francuzenko of Fairfax. VLW has requested comment from Francuzenko.

Willis is listed as a 2008 graduate of the George Mason University law school in a document published on the school’s website.

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