It's the cops who always are accusing judges of turning criminals loose on technicalities. These days, however, nine current and former Phoenix Police Department officers are smiling because a technicality may have gotten them off the hook.
Not that Max Dunlap's civil suit against the cops, filed in June 1982, was going to answer all the questions that surround the June 2, 1976, car-bombing murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.
But the long-awaited trial promised to be a humdinger that would lay bare the workings of a botched investigation. Now, pending a successful appeal, Dunlap's lawsuit has been dismissed without having made it to a jury.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Gottsfield ruled last week that Dunlap had filed the $605 million suit exactly one month after the statute of limitations had run out. A previous judge hadn't bought that argument years earlier, but lawyers for the cops resurrected it and this time struck the mother lode with Gottsfield.
Dunlap spent more than two years on death row for Bolles' murder before the Arizona Supreme Court ordered a retrial in June 1980. He never was retried after confessed hit man John Harvey Adamson declined to testify again unless prosecutors struck a new deal with him.
Gottsfield's ruling means, among other things, that the public likely won't ever learn how the local cops had deep-sixed anything that didn't fit their first-and-only theory of the murder conspiracy.
And the public also won't get to hear Dunlap try to convince a jury that he had been wrongly accused of paying Adamson to murder Bolles.
Lawyers for the cops had played a bit of Russian roulette over the years in not settling the Dunlap case out of court. Cop lawyer Mel McDonald maintained all along, however, that the evidence would show Dunlap was a bad guy. That alone, he said, would make a jury think twice about issuing a verdict in Dunlap's favor.
"We were completely convinced that Dunlap couldn't prove the case against us and that we could prove the case against him," McDonald says. "We would have won 2-0."
A New Times report in 1986 concluded that the Phoenix police had concealed crucial information on key suspects Bolles himself had named as his possible attackers as he lay mangled on a Phoenix street. The report also concluded that the cops had hidden entire files and had purged others to remove incriminating information on a host of possible suspects.
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The New Times report, however, also noted that there had been enough evidence in 1977 to convict Dunlap of murder. Lawyers for the police had mounted even more evidence against Dunlap in recent years--much of it from his own mouth during a startling 1986 deposition.
After Gottsfield's ruling, McDonald stood before the television cameras using words like "vindication." But everyone involved in this case knows victory on a technical legal issue is far from vindication on the merits.
Certainly, however, the Phoenix cops will take their big win and run--as far from the Bolles murder case as they can.