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State Settles Suit in Death of Inmate

Corcoran: Agency agrees to pay $825,000. Attorney for family says justice was served.

November 11, 1998|MARK ARAX and MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FRESNO — The state Department of Corrections agreed Tuesday to settle the civil rights lawsuit involving a Corcoran State Prison inmate whose 1994 shooting death sparked an FBI investigation and the indictments of eight officers.

The agreement calls for an $825,000 payment to the parents of the dead inmate, Preston Tate, the largest settlement of a shooting death in department history.

In agreeing to the deal, the state did not admit any liability on the part of high-ranking corrections officials or individual officers.

State officials indicated that they did not want the settlement to affect the upcoming criminal trial of the eight guards accused of setting up fights between rival gang members at Corcoran and using the fights as a pretext to shoot inmates.

"There was no admission of any liability," said department spokesman Tip Kindel. "From the department's standpoint, it was a pragmatic decision. We had seven attorneys from the private sector, so it would have been very expensive to take it to trial."

For months, settlement talks had broken down over the $1-million settlement sought by Tate's family. On Tuesday, after requesting that the family return to the bargaining table, the department agreed to the record payment.

Cal Terhune, the department's director, said he hoped that the settlement would "bring closure to the family" of Tate, a 25-year-old gang member from South-Central Los Angeles who was serving time in prison for a rape conviction.

Tate's parents and their attorneys were bound by a "no gloat" agreement and could not comment, said Catherine Campbell, a Fresno attorney who filed the lawsuit in 1995.

"All I can say is that the family believes that justice has been served," Campbell said.

She said the Department of Corrections contacted her last week to resume negotiations. "I said, 'No, we're through. We're going to trial. And they said, 'Then we'll get a court order.' "

Federal Magistrate Dennis Beck ordered the two sides back to court. On Tuesday, Beck shuttled from one room to another on the third floor of the federal courthouse in Fresno, trying to reach an agreement.

"We agreed to dismiss the complaint against all the named defendants, from the director of corrections to the shooter in the Tate case," Campbell said. "The settlement has no implications for the criminal case."

Employing depositions of state officials and interviews with inmates, Campbell had brought to light a pattern of shootings at Corcoran that grew out of a controversial state policy to mix rival gang members in the same small exercise yards.

From 1989 to 1994, the so-called integration policy was a key factor that led to the deaths of seven Corcoran inmates and serious injuries to 43 others by guards firing high-powered rifles.

In 1994, Tate was sent into an exercise yard at the prison's security housing unit with his cellmate and two rival gang members.

The yard, known as "the shooting gallery," had been the scene of numerous fights between Latino and black inmates. When Tate and his cellmate were charged by two Latino inmates, they defended themselves.

A videotape from a camera overlooking the yard shows a tangle of brawlers and then Tate being hit with a bullet intended for one of the rival aggressors.

In the months after his shooting, several outraged officers complained that the prison was covering up the incident and went to the FBI with their allegations.

That sparked a four-year federal investigation and grand jury inquiry.

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