Two former Miramar police officers who framed a mentally challenged 15-year-old boy for the rape and murder of a woman must pay him $7 million for the nearly 26 years he spent in prison, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
Anthony Caravella, now 46, of Pembroke Pines, was freed from prison in September 2009 after DNA testing exonerated him of the rape and murder of Ada Cox Jankowski, 58. His conviction was re-examined after a series of Sun Sentinel stories on the 1983 case.
Caravella, who works doing clean-up at his uncle’s construction sites, said he was happy and relieved —though he could still face a long, difficult path to try to collect the money.
“It feels like I’m one step closer to getting justice,” said Caravella. “When we won in court with the jury, I was real excited but it’s taking a long time.
“If there’s one thing I learned in prison, it’s how to be patient,” said Caravella, who spent 9,389 days behind bars.
He said he got a second job this week, working night security, to help pay his bills.
A federal jury in Fort Lauderdale in March 2013 found former Miramar police officers William Mantesta and George Pierson liable for framing Caravella.
The jurors found that both men “while acting under color of state law as a member of the City of Miramar Police Department” acted with malice or reckless indifference to Caravella, who had an IQ of 67. The two officers violated his constitutional rights against malicious prosecution, coerced him into confessing and withheld evidence that could have cleared him soon after his arrest in 1983, jurors found.
In matter-of-fact and unusually swift decision, issued just one week after hearing oral arguments in Miami, a three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the jury verdict and found no error in the trial judge’s rulings.
Mantesta, 65, of Chipley, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Pierson, 65, of Inverness, said he did not want to say much about the case: “I’m at a loss for words. This is something that happened 30 years ago and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Caravella’s lawyer, Barbara Heyer, was delighted the appeals court ruled so quickly.
“We are looking at all options to collect the verdict,” Heyer said.
Jamie Cole, the lead lawyer who represented the city of Miramar and the officers, said his clients have not yet decided if they should appeal the ruling.
He said city officials take the position that Miramar is not liable to pay the verdict and the city did not have insurance to cover the officers’ misconduct.
“Caravella can proceed with whatever collections efforts he deems appropriate against the officers,” Cole said.
Other legal experts, who were not involved in the case, said they believe that Miramar, or its insurance company, may have to pay all or some of the money judgment for the retired city employees.
Heyer said she is still investigating whether the city had insurance and if it should cover the cost of the verdict, as well as other options.
“The DNA exonerated him by confirming what we already knew — that an innocent 15-year-old was railroaded,” Heyer said. “The jurors vindicated him and now the appeals court has vindicated him.”
The jury verdict awarded Caravella $2.5 million in compensatory damages and punitive damages of $4.5 million against the officers — plus his lawyers’ fees and costs. Jurors found Mantesta liable for $4 million and Pierson liable for the remaining $3 million.
The same jury found former Miramar officer Bill Guess and retired Broward Sheriff’s Major Tony Fantigrassi not liable. The judge threw out a related claim against the city.
Caravella was arrested by Mantesta and Pierson on Dec. 28, 1983, on a juvenile case that alleged he stole a bicycle and didn’t show up for court.
Over the next week, while in juvenile custody, Caravella gave a series of statements to the officers that culminated in him confessing to the murder.
Heyer said Caravella trusted Mantesta and the officers, who spent hours alone with him, fed him information about the crime scene and got him to repeat it back to them.
Caravella and his childhood friend, Dawn Simone Herron, testified in the 2013 civil trial that the officers coerced Caravella into falsely incriminating himself by telling him that if he gave a statement they would free the 16-year-old girl who was with him when he was arrested.
In 1984, a Broward jury found him guilty of the murder and rape but voted 11-1 to spare him the death penalty, which was still legal for juveniles. The jurors recommended he spend the rest of his life in prison.
Caravella lost his appeal and seemed doomed to die in prison until 2001 when his brother Larry Dunlap called the Sun Sentinel and reporters examined the case. Troubled by what they found, they contacted the Broward Public Defender’s Office. Chief Assistant Public Defender Diane Cuddihy took on the case and fought for years to overturn the conviction.
A first round of DNA testing in 2001 reported no useful results but Cuddihy kept pushing and further DNA testing eventually excluded Caravella as a suspect.
The same DNA tests that exonerated Caravella linked another man to the vicious crime — Anthony Martinez, the victim’s neighbor and the last person seen alive with her. Martinez and Jankowski left a bar together shortly before she was raped, stabbed more than two dozen times, strangled and left on the grounds of Miramar Elementary School.
Martinez, who was 17, was the detectives’ prime suspect, but they dropped him when he and his mother stopped cooperating.
Martinez died of natural causes in upstate New York in November 2010, two months after the Broward State Attorney’s Office and Miramar police named him a “person of interest” in the murder.