A jury was seated Monday to hear a Hardeeville man's lawsuit claiming malicious prosecution by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office after the beating of a Bluffton man.
Theophilus D. Hamilton, acquitted in the brutal beating in 2008 that put Brian Lanese in intensive care for a month with head injuries, seeks undisclosed damages and alleges unlawful arrest, abuse of process and defamation. His trial is to begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Beaufort County Courthouse in Beaufort and is expected to last through the week. Hamilton and his former co-defendant in the criminal case, Harry Chris Battle Jr. of Bluffton, filed the suit in 2011.
Only Hamilton will take the civil case to court, as Battle accepted an undisclosed settlement from the county in January 2013, according to court records. County attorney Josh Gruber was out of the office Monday but said he would release the amount of the settlement Tuesday.
Hamilton turned down a $30,000 offer from the county, according to attorney Mary Lohr, who is representing the county.
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Hamilton responded with a request for more than $100,000, according to his attorney, Eric Erickson.
Both attorneys declined to discuss whether a settlement offer was still on the table.
Hamilton and Battle were charged in November 2008 with criminal conspiracy, second-degree burglary, and assault and battery with intent to kill in connection with the beating of Lanese. Both were 16-year-old Bluffton High School students at the time. A judge found both not guilty.
They were charged after a third suspect, Kuwan Fields, made a plea deal with the prosecution to testify that he, Hamilton and Battle burst from the woods at Lanese's Sugaree Drive home wearing Halloween masks and attacked Lanese and his friend Jeffrey Wooten.
However, Fields' initial confession was coerced through intimidation, as he was allegedly threatened by Investigator Louis Novak, according to the suit. Novak was fired by the Sheriff's Office in 2011 for arriving late to a meeting, Lohr said Monday.
During an interrogation, Novak described to Fields a prison rape at the Beaufort County Detention Center and told him prisoners were sleeping in hammocks in the gymnasium because there were no more available beds, according to court records.
Novak warned him to "sleep with one eye open. ... That's what everybody is doing," and threatened Fields' mother and grandmother, according to the lawsuit.
The Sheriff's Office also obtained evidence that Fields named Hamilton and Battle to protect relatives involved in the crime, the suit alleges. On Nov. 7, 2008, weeks before the two men were arrested, Fields' sister told Bluffton High School officials that her cousin had run from police on the night of the attack, come home with wet pants and had borrowed a hat found at the crime scene from Fields, the lawsuit states.
Moreover, Novak fabricated evidence to secure a conviction, the lawsuit alleges.
An initial Sheriff's Office report states a suspect yelled out "Deuce"-- a nickname for the cousin -- "or something similar to that."
When Novak filed a supplementary report, the line read, "Deuce, Chris or something similar to that," which the lawsuit states was an attempt to frame Harry Chris Battle. The Sheriff's Office has sought to dismiss the case, saying it is not liable for Novak because he acted on his own, according to the suit.
At trial, the prosecution's case was undermined by a discovered recording of a jail phone call, in which Fields said two other teenagers should have been on the front page of The Island Packet with him for the crime, the lawsuit states.
The Sheriff's Office was malicious in refusing to reinvestigate the case, according to the suit.
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.