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Jury selection in a wrongful death lawsuit against New London and its police department has ground to a halt because of a claim that the city and Police Chief Margaret Ackley conducted an improper investigation into the immigration status of homicide victim David Romero.
Romero, a Honduran native, was living in New London and working for a local insulation company when he was gunned down in September 2003 by Kurtulus Kalican, the ex-husband of Romero's girlfriend, Ayfer Kaya. Kalican also shot Kaya, who survived.
Jury selection began Jan. 12 in the lawsuit brought in New London Superior Court by Kaya and Romero's sister, Marta Paguada. They claim that police failed to respond properly to escalating domestic violence incidents involving Kaya and Kalican and to confiscate a .357 magnum from Kalican after a judge issued a criminal protective order prohibiting him from possessing firearms.
During jury selection, the city's attorneys filed a motion asking the court to allow them to present evidence to the jury that Romero was an undocumented immigrant at the time of his death. The judge has not ruled on that motion.
The city claims that Romero's real name was David Domingo Matute Paguada and that he was using a fraudulent resident alien card and a Social Security number belonging to a Kentucky woman who died in 1981.
Attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr., representing the plaintiffs, does not concede in court filings that Romero was an illegal immigrant. He claims the city improperly obtained information, which he says is irrelevant and inflammatory, when Ackley placed a phone call to an immigrations official on Jan. 26. He filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in New Haven, claiming Ackley was "inapproprately conspiring with federal agencies to uncover information about a man 8½ years dead." The lawsuit names Ackley and Department of Homeland Security Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials Frank Crowley and James Brown.
Reardon filed the federal suit on behalf of Paguada and Romero's estate, claiming the investigation into Romero's immigration status is depriving Paguada and Kaya, a U.S. citizen from Turkey, of their constitutional right "to seek redress for their injuries because of their status as immigrants."
"The conduct ... is the latest incident of discrimination by City officials and agencies against immigrants and other minorities in the City of New London, a City with a longstanding history of complaints of residents of discrimination by City officials, some of which are currently being investigated," the lawsuit states.
The federal suit goes on to list the alleged wrongful termination of Alfred Mayo, the only black firefighter to be hired by the city since 1978; the alleged planting of drugs by a white police officer resulting in the arrest of Lance Goode, an African American; and "many other such instances in the past."
"This continuing and ongoing conduct of the defendant police department has caused the Plaintiff, as a minority and immigrant, to suffer constant fear and apprehension for suing the city in which she resides," the lawsuit reads.
Attorneys for the city did not respond Tuesday to phone calls seeking comment. In court filings, they claim they do not intend to use Romero's immigration status "to embark on a smear campaign," but to demonstrate that it could diminish the plaintiffs' ability to recover economic damages by $1 million.
Juries in wrongful death lawsuits are allowed to compensate survivors for economic losses, including the future earnings of the decedent. Court documents indicate that Reardon plans during the trial to elicit testimony from an economic expert who has calculated Romero's lost earning capacity, as a worker in the United States, at more than $1.1 million.
In New London, Reardon asked Superior Court Judge Emmet L. Cosgrove to declare a mistrial based on the defense's late notification of its intent to use the immigration information. Four jurors have been selected to date. Reardon also is requesting that the court sever the lawsuit so that Kaya's and Paguada's claims can be tried separately.
The judge suspended jury selection Feb. 3 and has scheduled a hearing Friday. According to a court transcript, Cosgrove told the attorneys during a Jan. 27 hearing that even if Romero were not in the United States legally, "he would absolutely have a right to bring his claim for the damages that flow from his death. That right is protected in the Connecticut Constitution and will be observed in this courtroom."
The judge told the attorneys the only consideration would be whether Romero's lost earning capacity would be calculated based on his potential to work in the United States labor market or in the labor market of Honduras or wherever he might work legally.