April 1995: Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez arrested on four charges of child rape and molestation.
July 1995: Two additional charges of child sexual abuse filed.
August 1995: Convicted by a Chelan County jury of one count of first-degree child molestation.
May 1997: Conviction upheld by Court of Appeals.
1999: Conviction overturned by Court of Appeals.
January 2000: Charges dismissed by Chelan County Prosecutor’s Office.
February 2000: Released from prison.
January 2001: Files civil rights suit in U.S. District Court; the suit was dismissed in 2003.
September 2003: Files lawsuit for legal negligence against public defender’s office.
WENATCHEE — A Wenatchee attorney who acknowledged that he was not experienced enough to defend a man convicted in the 1994-95 Wenatchee sex-abuse investigation has agreed to pay $2.9 million to his former client, who spent nearly five years behind bars before the charges were dismissed.
Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, who filed the suit, signed the settlement agreement on May 7. His former defense attorney, Ed Stevensen, signed it on April 28. The settlement is now awaiting approval by a judge.
Both sides initially agreed a year ago to settle for $3.8 million. But that agreement was never signed or approved. The latest proposed settlement was filed in Chelan County Superior Court on April 29.
The court document states that the agreement was based, in part, on a declaration filed in court by Stevensen acknowledging that he had difficulties defending Hidalgo against accusations of child sexual abuse. Stevensen and Hidalgo’s attorney, Tyler Firkins of Seattle, could not be reached to comment.
Stevensen was working for the Barker and Howard law firm, which provided indigent defense services for Chelan County, when he was assigned in 1995 to represent Hidalgo. He had been admitted to the Washington State Bar less than two years earlier, and had been working as a Chelan County public defender for a little over a year.
In a declaration filed in court on Friday, Stevensen, now a juvenile prosecutor for Chelan County, wrote that he had had limited legal experience and little supervision or support from his employers when he was handed the Hidalgo case.
Stevensen wrote that he was unable to launch a counter defense to medical testimony, offered by prosecutors, that one of the children Hidalgo was accused of attacking had been sexually assaulted. He said that he did not know how to “attack” the strong medical testimony or to call on expert witnesses to attest that children sometimes make up stories of being sexually assaulted when they are improperly questioned by authorities.
“If I had known these tools were available to use, I certainly would have used them,” he said. “Essentially, this unrebutted testimony impressed the jury that something had occurred, and this led to the single conviction.”
Stevensen continued that he “was not trying to say to the court that I didn’t do a good job with what I had. I tried my best.”
But he added that his employer, Barker and Howard, “did not provide the necessary support and supervision to assist me in putting on a proper defense at trial.”
Stevensen was admitted to the Washington State Bar in October 1993 and was hired by Barker and Howard in 1994.
Barker and Howard no longer provides the county’s public defense, but did provide it from January 1994 until December 2002. One of its partners, attorney Keith Howard, then contracted with the county until 2006. In 2007, the county switched to a public defenders office, called Counsel for the Defense of Chelan County, and hired Howard as its director.
The World was unable to reach Stevensen’s former employers for comment.
Hidalgo was one of more than 40 people arrested in the sex-abuse investigation that was based largely on the testimony of two foster children of the lead police investigator in the case, Wenatchee Police Detective Bob Perez. Hidalgo was initially charged with four counts of child rape and molestation, then charged with two more counts before his trial began, all involving two girls.
Court documents describe Hidalgo at the time of his arrest as a poor migrant worker who spoke only broken English.
Hidalgo maintained his innocence, and refused to settle when the Prosecutor’s Office offered to drop all but one of the charges against him in a plea deal. Instead, Hidalgo chose to go to trial. He never took the stand in his own trial, and Stevensen called only three witnesses.
Partway through the trial, Firkins, a private attorney, sent a letter to the court offering to represent Hidalgo if the judge, Carol Wardell, would grant a two-week continuance. Wardell denied the request, saying in court that she thought Stevensen was doing a good job.
Hidalgo was convicted by a jury of a single count of child molestation and sentenced to five years and six months in prison.
He was locked up nearly five years before the state Court of Appeals overturned his conviction and he was released from prison in February 2000. The Court of Appeals ruled that police improperly influenced the testimony of the children who accused Hidalgo and others of sexual abuse.
Of the 27 people convicted in the sex-abuse investigation, 17 were thrown out or overturned on appeal.
Court documents state that only defendents represented by public defenders were convicted. All defendents represented by private attorneys either had the charges dropped or were acquitted during their trials.
Hidalgo filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in 2001 against the city of Wenatchee, Wenatchee Police Department, Chelan County, Perez, and others, claiming that his civil rights were violated. That suit, which also named the Barker and Howard law firm and Stevensen, was dismissed by the court in 2003.
Hidalgo then filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Stevensen, Barker, and Barker and Howard in 2003 in Chelan County Superior Court.
An expert hired by Hidalgo’s attorney, Firkins, to help determine the effectiveness of Hidalgo’s public defense during his trial concluded that “Mr. Stevensen simply was not prepared to defend Mr. Hidalgo competently at trial.”
The expert, John Strait, wrote in a declaration filed in court last week, that Stevensen’s caseload at the time was too big to allow him time to adequately defend Hidalgo. He also said that Stevensen did not interview numerous witnesses, including Perez, Child Protective Services case workers, the doctors who examined the alleged victims of Hidalgo, or the girls who accused Hidalgo.
The proposed settlement submitted to the court last week is only between Stevensen and Hidalgo. The proposed agreement states that the settlement was reached to protect Stevensen’s personal assets, property or business from a potential jury verdict in excess of his insurance limits.
Hidalgo’s attorney also hired a private insurance claim consultant to help determine how much money Hidalgo was owed for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. In a document filed in court on April 29, the consultant calculated that, based on other federal cases of unlawful imprisonment, Hidalgo should be entitled to up to $16 million for mental, emotional and physical damages he suffered during his arrest, trial, conviction, and prison term, as well as the break-up of his marriage while he was incarcerated.
Mandt also noted that Hidalgo was assaulted while in prison and put in solitary confinement. Other court documents state that he was assaulted twice in prison and spent six months in solitary confinement for his own protection.
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152