SPOKANE — A settlement awarded to a man wrongly accused in Wenatchee’s sex abuse cases went from $2.9 million to about $689,000 — and that’s where it will remain, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, convicted at trial of child molestation but exonerated after spending four years in prison, sued his former public defense attorneys for malpractice in 2003, saying his primary lawyer Ed Stevensen and his supervisor Jeffrey Barker failed to properly attack the flawed case against him.
Hidalgo and Stevensen signed a settlement in 2010, in which Stevensen admitted to poor performance on the case and agreed to a $2.9 million judgment to be paid solely by his insurer, Westport Insurance Corp.
But in 2011, Grant County Superior Court Judge Evan Sperline ruled the settlement amount was unreasonable, largely because Hidalgo had chances of “between 10 percent and 20 percent of prevailing” had the claim gone to trial. He ordered a settlement amount of $688,875.
Hidalgo, 54, appealed in July 2012, leading to the appellate ruling Tuesday. His attorneys couldn’t be reached Tuesday to learn whether they plan a Supreme Court appeal.
The former orchard worker was arrested in April 1995 on charges of child rape and molestation, accused by Wenatchee Police Detective Bob Perez of sexually abusing two young girls. Both girls, Donna and Melinda Everett, were in Perez’s foster care, and the detective coerced testimony from them that led to the arrests of 40 Wenatchee-area residents in a wide-ranging sex abuse dragnet from 1994 to 1995.
Hidalgo spent September 1995 to February 2000 in state prison, where he was twice assaulted by other inmates and spent six months in protective solitary confinement. Of the 27 cases that ended in convictions or guilty pleas, 17, including Hidalgo’s, were thrown out or overturned on appeal after Perez’s tactics were investigated by a specially-appointed appellate judge.
In Hidalgo’s malpractice case, his attorney Richard Kilpatrick of Bellevue argued, his defense lawyers participated in meetings where attorneys planned to make Perez’s misconduct the heart of their cases. That strategy helped acquit Honnah Sims, a Sunday school teacher charged with child rape and the first of Perez’s sex-rings suspect to be found innocent by a jury.
As part of the settlement agreement, Stevensen — now a deputy criminal prosecutor for Chelan County — admitted he lacked proper legal experience to handle Hidalgo’s case, and said Barker’s firm “did not provide the necessary support and supervision to assist me in putting on a proper defense at trial.”
In his appeal, Kilpatrick argued that Sperline should have held a new hearing on the $2.9 million settlement, saying the judge “admitted he had little experience in complex civil litigation” and simply adopted a prior ruling to arrive at the $688,875 figure. The insurer Westport challenged an additional $134,755 in interest Sperline tacked on to the settlement amount.
The appellate ruling Tuesday upheld Sperline on both counts, leaving the figures intact. Sperline’s method “was rational and presumable presumably a common approach to arriving at the reasonable settlement amount,” Acting Chief Judge Lauren Siddoway wrote for the Spokane-based court.