IOWA CITY — Two black men wrongly convicted in the 1977 murder of a white Iowa police officer hope to prove something they could not during trials that sent them to prison for 25 years: that detectives framed them to solve a high-profile case.
During a civil trial that starts Wednesday in Des Moines, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee will argue that Council Bluffs police officers coerced witnesses into fabricating testimony against them in the killing of John Schweer.
Schweer was found dead while working as the night watchman at a car dealership. Harrington and McGhee, then teenagers from Omaha, say detectives used threats against a group of young black car theft suspects to trump up evidence targeting them because of their race and because of pressure to solve the retired captain’s killing.
Despite little physical evidence, the two men were convicted at 1978 trials and sentenced to long prison terms.
They were freed in 2003, after the Iowa Supreme Court found that prosecutors committed misconduct in concealing reports about another man seen near the crime scene with a shotgun. The key witnesses had also recanted their testimony, saying they were pressured into implicating the men.
After winning their freedom, they filed lawsuits against prosecutors and officers they blamed for forcing them to spend their adult lives in the Fort Madison prison. Their case reached the Supreme Court in 2009 over the issue of whether suspects have the constitutional right not to be framed by prosecutors. Before justices ruled, Pottawatamie County agreed to pay $12 million to settle claims against two former prosecutors while not admitting wrongdoing.