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Judge Slashes $5.74-Million Award Against W. Covina Police

July 11, 1989|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

Saying a jury's $5.74-million verdict against West Covina police in the kidnaping and murder of a 10-year-old boy was clouded by emotion, a judge Monday slashed the award to $300,000.

Pomona Superior Court Judge Robert A. Dukes ruled in the city's request that he throw out the May verdict. Dukes said the boy's father, Ronald Allan Tolleson, could either take the lower judgment or have a new trial.

Tolleson said he would appeal the decision.

Tolleson had sued the San Gabriel Valley city, claiming that police were negligent in their handling of the 1980 abduction of his son, Ronnie.

Much of the case hinged on when Ronnie was strangled. Danny Jerome Young, a neighbor of the Tollesons, was convicted of second-degree murder and kidnaping after Ronnie's body was found in Young's garage.

Police had searched the home of Young, a parolee from the California Youth Authority, the day of the abduction. Young testified for the city that he killed the boy immediately after abducting him.

But the Tolleson suit contended that a more thorough search of the Young home might have found Ronnie alive.

Tolleson and his lawyer, Peter M. Wucetich, said Monday's ruling was startling, especially since Dukes did not overturn the jury's finding of fault.

"The judge said he agreed with their (the jury's) verdict," Tolleson said. "We thought it would be reduced, but nothing like this. I was very shocked by what (Dukes) did; I think my son has a higher value than that."

Tolleson also argued that inexperienced police officers botched the investigation, allowing a potential suspect to escape from a ransom drop that police had under surveillance.

Juror Bill Herbert said the panel was not swayed by the emotions of the case or Wucetich's passionate closing argument.

"It's impossible to place value on the (life) of a child, and it's pointless to dwell on that," the juror said. But, he added, the large award was intended to send a message.

"A reasonable figure would awake a lot of cities and towns and their government bodies that this was serious business," Herbert said.

In justifying the jury's original award, Wucetich cited a 1985 Los Angeles case in which the parents of a 9-year-old child struck by a car in a crosswalk received a $3.4-million judgment on appeal.

"I find it so unbelievable," Wucetich said. Dukes "essentially totally disregarded the jury's verdict. I'm outraged. What happened to the right for a jury trial?"

West Covina Police Chief Craig Meacham, who had pushed for the city to appeal, said he agreed with Dukes' characterization that the court was bound by "bad law" concerning police liability. A past president of the California Police Chiefs Assn., Meacham said he would lobby for legislation that would reduce police liability in such cases.

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