Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004
City not liable in Schieber slaying
By Joseph A. Slobodzian,
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
A federal jury found yesterday that a Philadelphia police practice of downgrading the complaints of many rape victims did not contribute to the 1998 sexual assault and murder of graduate student Shannon Schieber.
The verdict gave some slight solace to Sylvester and Vicki Schieber, who filed the lawsuit five months after their 23-year-old daughter, a doctoral candidate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was murdered on May 7, 1998.
The jury - six women and six men - concluded that Philadelphia police did engage in a practice of discounting sexual-assault complaints, a practice laid bare in part during 51/2 years of litigation before the Schiebers' lawsuit went to trial.
But the jury rejected the Schiebers' claims - necessary to award damages - that the downgrading violated the equal-protection and due-process rights of women or rape victims, or increased the likelihood of Schieber's sexual assault and murder by Center City rapist Troy Graves.
Though visibly upset, the Schiebers, of Chevy Chase, Md., stood stoically as U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro polled the jurors on their verdict.
"It's the worst day since we put her six feet under," Vicki Schieber said.
Sitting immediately behind them, providing moral support, were two other Graves victims: "M.M.," who testified at the trial about her experience with police after she was raped and choked to unconsciousness by Graves on July 11, 1997, and a woman from Fort Collins, Colo., one of eight women Graves raped in 2001 and 2002 after he left Philadelphia, joined the Air Force, and moved west.
After his 2002 arrest in Colorado, Graves, 25, was convicted of attacking M.M. and three other Center City women in 1997, murdering Schieber, and attacking a sixth Philadelphia woman in 1999. He is now serving a life prison sentence in Colorado.
Despite the practice of downgrading - almost 25 percent of sexual complaints and 8 percent of all serious crimes were reclassified as "noncrimes" or lesser crimes - city lawyers argued that there was no evidence the practice was devised intentionally to discriminate against women.
Nor, they argued, should the city be held liable for the acts of a cunning sexual predator such as Graves.
"We still feel for this family; we know they were devastated by their daughter's death," said Jeffrey M. Scott, a divisional deputy city solicitor and one of three city lawyers in the eight-day trial, which began Feb. 11. "But this jury listened to all the evidence that came out and decided... there was no discriminatory intent."
Chief Deputy City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith said the verdict "really vindicated the Police Department. They have taken a real beating over this issue."
Outside the courtroom, the Schiebers said they had been prepared for the possibility of a such a verdict.
Nationwide, lawsuits seeking damages from municipalities for deaths or injuries involving police or other municipal employees have proved much more difficult to win since 1998, when the U.S. Supreme Court significantly raised the standard of proof for plaintiffs in Sacramento County, Calif. v. Lewis.
Also present for the verdict, which came after 111/2 hours of deliberations that began Monday, were Police Officers Steven Woods and Raymond Scherff, who responded to the emergency call of screams coming from Schieber's apartment shortly after 2 a.m. on May 7, 1998.
Both officers were named in the Schiebers' suit - they were dismissed in a pretrial appeal - for not breaking down the door of Schieber's apartment and, possibly, saving her life.
Woods and Scherff testified they had no legal cause to force the door because there were no sounds when they knocked and no signs of forced entry, and because the neighbor who called 911 equivocated when questioned.
Both officers declined to comment after the verdict.
Members of the jury remained sequestered after the verdict and were unavailable for comment.
The Schiebers have 10 days to file posttrial motions challenging the verdict, but Sylvester Schieber said he doubted they would.
Outside the federal courthouse on Market Street, the Schiebers said they still had achieved significant change in police policy and procedure in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
They vowed to continue working to memorialize their daughter and campaign for police nationwide to take complaints about crime more seriously.
"Shannon was hell-bent to make this world a better place," "Syl" Schieber said. "She can't do that now, but we owe her."
Schieber's murder - and the subsequent scandal after it became known that police downgraded almost 25 percent of rape complaints received in 1995, 1996 and 1997 - did result in changes.
Downgrading was prohibited, and police officials ordered a reinvestigation of about 2,000 rape complaints. The department also reorganized the former Sex Crimes Unit as the current Special Victims Unit.
"There are many people in this city who are going to have to live with this for the rest of their lives," Schieber said. "There were thousands of cases here that were downgraded."
At an afternoon news conference, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson thanked the jury for vindicating the actions of Scherff and Woods.
"I want to give condolences to the Schieber family," Johnson said. "From the very beginning, we didn't want to make this thing between the Police Department, the city, and the Schieber family.
"We take crime, whether it's sex crime or any other crime, very seriously," Johnson added, praising the efforts of Special Victims Unit detectives in working with Colorado authorities to bring about Graves' arrest and conviction.
Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2658 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Ira Porter contributed to this article.
To read more about police investigation of sex crimes, go to http://inquirer.philly.com/packages/crime/