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Court Tosses Wrongful-Arrest Suit in School Death

A federal appeals court has thrown out the wrongful-arrest lawsuit of a Chicago high school student who was arrested and detained for 23 days in the death of a classmate in a schoolyard brawl, but whose charges were later dropped.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled unanimously March 6 to uphold summary judgment for two Chicago police detectives who investigated the 2009 death at Fenger High School and were sued by suspect Eugene Bailey.

The court ruled that officers had probable cause to arrest Bailey based on several persons identifying him in a video of the brawl among rival groups of students that resulted in the death of Derrion Albert. As the investigation continued, the identification faltered, and Bailey was released. Eventually, five other people were convicted of murder in the case.

In the video that showed several people kicking, punching, and stomping Albert, one attacker wore a black polo shirt and red-and-black shorts, court documents say. The two lead detectives assigned to the case, William Sullivan and Michele Moore-Grose, asked a police officer assigned to Fenger High if she could identify attackers, and that officer identified Bailey as the student in the black polo short. A Fenger student also identified Bailey. 

Based on those IDs, the detectives arrested Bailey, who denied any involvement and said he was at his brother's house at the time of the attack. While Bailey was in custody, six Fenger High staff members arrived at the police station. After viewing the video, an assistant principal and a school security officer identified Bailey as the attacker in the black polo shirt, but four other school staffers did not recognize that attacker. The assistant principal later the same day told the police he harbored some doubts about the identification.

A state judge found probable cause to hold Bailey within 48 hours of arrest. Denied bail, he stayed in custody as the investigation continued. Over the next few days, the detectives received anonymous calls disputing that it was Bailey in the video, and another identifying someone else as the assailant wearing the black polo shirt.

After further investigation, prosecutors dropped all charges against Bailey. He then sued the two detectives (and the city of Chicago) on civil rights claims and malicious prosecution. 

Bailey claimed the video was not sufficiently clear in its content and image-quality to support a finding of probable cause based on the original witness identifications. A federal district court rejected his claims.

In its decision in Bailey v. City of Chicago, the 7th Circuit panel affirmed the lower court's decision in favor of the two detectives. The court noted that at varying points during the investigation, six individuals identified Bailey as the assailant wearing the black polo shirt and red-and-black shorts in the video. 

"Although the identifications were later shown to be false, these statements were sufficiently credible at the time that it was reasonable for the officers to rely on them," the appeals court said. "The familiarity between the witnesses and Bailey gave credibility to their identifications and countered concerns about the quality of the video."

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