- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — A federal judge will allow an Eastern Shore man who was tried six times for murder and ultimately acquitted to proceed with a suit that claims civil rights violations amounting to malicious prosecution.

Walter James Hovatter was once convicted of the 1995 murder of Charles Payne Jr. in Somerset County, and he was sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

But his conviction was overturned on appeal, and his four other trials ended in mistrials or hung juries.

Mr. Hovatter filed suit against several law-enforcement agencies in October 2003, nearly three years after the final jury to hear his case acquitted him.

In a memorandum opinion issued last week, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake dismissed some of the civil rights claims — which amount to charges of malicious prosecution — but allowed others, permitting the case to proceed.

Judge Blake narrowed the scope of his claims to those arising in a period before his arrest in May 1994.

Mr. Hovatter’s malicious-arrest claims fail because the three-year statute of limitations began the day of his arrest, Judge Blake ruled.

“I’m confident he was unlawfully arrested and prosecuted,” said lawyer Matthew Bennett, one of the attorneys who will represent Mr. Hovatter.

Mr. Hovatter’s suit claims violations of his civil rights under federal and state law. Defendants named in the original suit included the former Somerset County state’s attorney, a state police corporal, two Wicomico County police officers and the Wicomico County sheriff.

The assistant attorney general defending the case says he’s confident that the case will be dismissed after discovery. And Daniel Karp, a private lawyer representing some of the defendants, said there is “only a slight sliver” left of the case.

Judge Blake’s decision dismissed claims against the Wicomico County sheriff, the state, and county commissioners in Somerset and Wicomico counties.

Mr. Hovatter claims that state police, along with Wicomico County officers, conducted an intentionally misleading investigation by falsifying witness statements, ignoring evidence and making false claims in the statement of probable cause.

He also claimed that the Somerset County state’s attorney instructed witnesses to testify falsely against him and prosecuted the case, knowing that the charges were unsubstantiated.

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