No justice in DeOnte Rawlings settlement

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe
A settlement in a civil suit is akin to a plea bargain in a criminal case. It's a deal that allows the contending parties to avoid trial, where they would risk losing and also have to pay buckets of dough in legal costs.

But is justice served when a case is settled? Rarely, if ever. That certainly is my impression of the way the District settled the claim by the family of DeOnte Rawlings, who was killed in 2007 in a shootout with off-duty police.

The family sued the city for $100 million for wrongful death. On Thursday, with the trial about to begin, the attorney general announced the city had settled the case for a secret sum. My sources tell me the number was in the neighborhood of $900,000.

This sad affair was mishandled by politicians and lawyers from the day young Rawlings was shot in the head. You tell me if the settlement resolves much of anything.

We know that DeOnte grew up in the city's Condon Terrace neighborhood, a rough patch with a few public housing complexes. He was 14 and a freshman at Ballou High. He had had a few run-ins with the police but no arrests, to my knowledge.

On that Saturday in September, he was riding a stolen mini-bike down an alley. A car passed, stopped and backed up. James Haskel was at the wheel of the gold Chevy Tahoe. His friend, Anthony Clay, rode shotgun. Both were veteran police officers. Both were armed. They were scouring the neighborhood for a mini-bike stolen from Haskel's garage. Rawlings was astride it.

Words were exchanged. Shots were fired. Rawlings died from a gunshot wound in the back of his head. The officers left the scene: Clay drove off in the Tahoe, with a bullet hole in its side; Haskel made it to his mother's place nearby.

Rawlings' neighborhood was riled up. Rookie Mayor Adrian Fenty showed up to criticize the cops, give a Rawlings family member the microphone at a press conference, and promise to pay for the funeral -- three mistakes that vilified the police and set the stage for the $100 million civil lawsuit.

In the last four years, federal and local investigators have examined the case. The Justice Department's civil rights division checked it. The FBI worked it. The U.S. Attorney took it before a grand jury. No charges were brought, ever. The police department's internal affairs division -- no friend to street cops -- absolved Haskel and Clay.

Neither Haskel nor Clay have made public statements on the case, but I interviewed both in 2008. They are solid keepers of the peace. Haskel was born, raised, educated and now lives not far from Condon Terrace. He's a Ballou alum. Both cops are back on the force.

If Haskel and Clay shot in self defense, according to teams of investigators and evidence from the scene, why did Attorney General Irvin Nathan agree to pay off the Rawlings family?

Beyond the need to avoid a trial, we will never know.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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