Cumberland Twp., PA Police Officer Held Liable in $350,000 Civil Suit
From The Herald-Standard Newspaper, April 30, 2012
Six years ago, David O’Hara of Carmichaels was charged with sexually abusing a child.
The charges – of which he was acquitted – changed his life, and shook his faith in the criminal justice system, he said.
O’Hara sued in federal court, and last year received a $350,000 settlement against one of the Cumberland Township police officers who charged him, but O’Hara and his wife, Rose, say that has done little to quell the whispers and questioning looks associated with being charged with molesting a child.
O’Hara sued in 2008, several months after it took a Greene County jury about 20 minutes to acquit him of four charges. Before the jury got the case, a judge dismissed 14 additional charges because they were unsupported by the evidence police presented. Police and prosecutors alleged he sexually touched a girl. He said the brevity of the verdict made the lack of probable cause to bring the charges even more apparent to him.
“How could those 12 people see it in 17 minutes when police officers, caseworkers, supervisors and (prosecutors) couldn’t?” O’Hara asked.
The suit named county prosecutors, CYS employees and other police officers, though all but Cumberland Township police officer Jorel Hanley were dismissed. The suit alleged various things, including that police should have conducted a more thorough investigation before filing unfounded charges. The suit alleged the girl involved in the case made false allegations against seven different people, involving 11 different incidents. By the time the case was scheduled for trial, only Hanley remained as a defendant.
The settlement includes a provision that indicated that Hanley does not acknowledge any liability in the matter.
The criminal case prompted CYS to remove the couple’s niece and nephew from their home, although they left the couple’s children with them. Kennedy said she quit her job to stay at home with their children.
“I had to listen to her cry herself to sleep every night wondering if today was going to be the day (CYS took our children too),” O’Hara said.
O’Hara said that he was initially offered a 10-to-20-year sentence in exchange for a plea deal in the criminal case. By the time his trial rolled around, O’Hara said prosecutors offered a five-year probation sentence.
“I told them I’d sit in jail before I pleaded guilty to something I didn’t do,” O’Hara said.
He and his attorneys, Doug Sholtis and Ben Goodwin, prepared for the case and the trial lasted six hours, O’Hara said. Most of the charges were dismissed by the judge, and it took jurors 17 minutes to acquit him of the remaining charges, O’Hara said.
Ask them what’s changed since this case started, and both are frank: everything.
Their children don’t play sports much anymore. There are too many parents who give them looks, or whisper to one another.
“They believe what they read. They think I beat the system,” O’Hara said. “I’m stuck with this forever.”
Other people’s children don’t stay over at their house, and their children don’t stay at friends’ homes.
Neither O’Hara nor Kennedy are as helpful as they used to be. They keep to themselves, reluctant to go out of their way for people, both said.
“We just aren’t the same people we used to be. We used to be laid back, we used to have fun,” he said. “Prior to this, I’d have given people the shirt off my back to help them. Not anymore.”
“We don’t help anyone anymore,” Kennedy said. “We even watch who we bring into our house.”
O’Hara said he wanted to have a jury trial in the civil matter, but felt that after years of dealing with the case in criminal and then civil court, it was time to stop.
“This was never about the money, it’s about holding people accountable,” O’Hara said.