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Judge rules Sarsfield deserves $13.6M for wrongful conviction
By Jennifer Kavanaugh/ Daily News Staff
Friday, October 6, 2006

MARLBOROUGH -- Seven months after the city settled a wrongful rape conviction lawsuit for $2 million, a federal judge ruled this week that Eric Sarsfield deserves $13.6 million for the decade he spent in prison.

    Wednesday's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel doesn't change the $2 million settlement the city reached with Sarsfield in March, but it does give Sarsfield's lawyers the option to chase after other parties, to the extent they exist, for the rest of that money.

    The judge's decision comes almost four years after Sarsfield first sued the city and several police officers over his 1987 conviction for a rape he did not commit. She wrote that Sarsfield's "social and communal life has been shredded" by his conviction and incarceration.

    "It is, of course, impossible to make plaintiff whole and to give back to him his lost liberty, the time he lost from ordinary life, and his emotional and physical health," Zobel wrote in her decision. "Translating such losses into dollars is, at best, an attempt at reasoned judging."
    The judgment breaks down to $2 million for pain and suffering from the time after the 1986 rape until 1991, when he was confined to maximum security in Gardner; $11 million for damages since then; and $655,940 for economic losses Sarsfield has incurred as a result of the arrest and imprisonment.
    "The whole thing took 20 years of my life away," Sarsfield said, when reached yesterday at his Clinton home. He said he wants to move on. "I'd like to kind of put it behind me."
    Sarsfield, now 43, was arrested and convicted for a 1986 rape on Pleasant Street. In his lawsuit, he accused police officers of unfairly targeting him as a suspect, ignoring details that suggested his innocence, fabricating evidence against him, and bullying the rape victim into identifying him as the attacker. He was cleared by two DNA tests after he was released.
    In March, city officials said they agreed to the $2 million settlement because they feared a much larger payout if the case went to trial. In one court filing, Sarsfield's attorneys said the evidence and standards set by other cases "support an award of $20 million." City Council President Arthur Vigeant said he hadn't seen the $2 million as a gamble at the time.
    "We thought it was fair, and we went with the advice of counsel," Vigeant said yesterday. "Hopefully, we can put this behind us, and he can take this judgment and turn his life around."
    In settling the suit -- which also spared the officers, most of whom are retired, from making any payouts -- the city signed over any insurance rights to Sarsfield. That meant Sarsfield's lawyers could chase after any insurers the city had at the time, though the city discovered it had gaps in insurance, and some of the insurers are no longer in business.
    "We're considering all possible options," said Deborah Cornwall, one of Sarsfield's attorneys, when asked if she will pursue insurers. Sarsfield had gotten another $500,000 from a state fund, but Cornwall said "no amount of money, as the judge said in her opinion, can ever compensate Eric Sarsfield for what he went through. "Even though the city and Sarsfield agreed to a settlement, Zobel presided over a trial to determine the total amount of damages Sarsfield should get. The proceedings included the testimony of Sarsfield, his wife Denise, the rape victim and a psychiatrist, and the report of an economics professor.
    In a report to the court, psychiatrist Jerome Rogoff wrote Sarsfield had endured trauma in prison, staying in a cell with cockroaches and rats, and living in fear of attacks by other inmates who believed he was a sex offender.
    Rogoff said Sarsfield suffered from physical ailments and continues to struggle with a serious drinking problem, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and panic attacks. He was also threatened in 2000 by a Bolton Police officer for failing to register as a sex offender, because a clerical error had kept him on the list, the court records state.
    Sarsfield lost his job in May 2005, and now does some part-time deliveries for a friend. When asked about the fact that the suit has revealed so much about his private life, Sarsfield said he separates the events from who he is as a person.
    "It's the truth, what can you say?" Sarsfield said. "It's not about me. It's about what happened to me, the whole process, the whole legal process that got us here."
    (Jennifer Kavanaugh can be reached at 508-626-4416 or at jkavanau@cnc.com.)