York County settling wrongful-death claim avoided risk of trial, attorney says

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Judicial Center

An attorney who represents York County in a now-settled federal lawsuit filed by the estate of murder victim C. Jennifer Dowell said county employees didn't fail the domestic violence victim.

"Putting the blame on the county for what happened in this case is really, really unfair," Lancaster-based attorney David J. Freedman said.

Dowell, 53, was fatally beaten in her Manchester Township home June 7, 2012, by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ross Crawford. At the time, Crawford was supposed to be on electronically monitored house arrest and under the supervision of the county probation department.

Crawford, now 48 and also of Manchester Township, pleaded guilty Jan. 11, 2016, to third-degree murder and related charges. He was sentenced to 24½ to 49 years in state prison.

Freedman contacted The York Dispatch in response to an article published online July 23, stating that York County and plaintiff's attorney Devon Jacob had settled the federal lawsuit filed by Dowell's estate for $550,000. The York Dispatch requested comment from York County on July 23 prior to publishing the article; county officials declined comment July 24.

More:Settlement: York County paid $550K to estate of murder victim

Freedman said he disputes a statement made by Jacob, that "Nobody pays over a half-million dollars unless they did something wrong."

No admission: The settlement agreement states there is no admission of liability by the county, Freedman said.

Ross Crawford

Of the $550,000 settlement, York County paid about $137,925, while the county’s insurance carrier paid about $412,075, the attorney said.

According to Freedman, both sides went into mediation in November 2014 but couldn't settle the case.

In April 2017, both parties were ordered by a U.S. district judge to try a second round of mediation, he said.

During that mediation, Jacob offered to settle the case for $2.5 million and said the estate would increase its demand to $5 million if the county filed for a motion of summary judgment, or failed to settle, according to Freedman.

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"We did not settle at that mediation," Freedman said, and instead filed a motion for summary judgment, "to have the case thrown out before trial."

In November 2018, the estate lowered its settlement demand to $1.25 million, Freedman said, but the county rejected that offer as well. York County resumed negotiations after Jacob asked whether it would be willing to settle the case for less than $1 million, according to Freedman.

The case was settled while the county's motion for summary judgment was still pending, he said.

"My take ... was that the case was going to be thrown out in response to our motion for summary judgment, and the estate was going to end up with nothing," Freedman said.

Freedman maintains Dowell's estate couldn't prove the county caused her death at the hands of Crawford.

"He murdered Ms. Dowell as an invited guest (in her home)," the attorney said. "There's no evidence in the case that she ever cooperated with (authorities)."

Jacob said he disagrees that the county was going to succeed in having the lawsuit thrown out, noting an earlier motion for dismissal by the county was denied. He said he believes Dowell's estate could have prevailed in court.

On house arrest: Crawford, who had a history of domestic abuse against Dowell, was supposed to be on house arrest with electronic monitoring after being released from York County Prison.

More:York-area man accused of killing girlfriend supposed to be on house arrest

More:York County probation chief: House arrest no 'magic guarantee'

"For whatever reason, York County did not do that," Jacob has said. "And while he was roaming free, he murdered Ms. Dowell."

Freedman noted that a York County judge on May 21, 2012, ordered Crawford released "forthwith," meaning immediately; Crawford had been locked up for a probation violation.

Crawford's probation officer had recommended a sentence of six months in prison, but by the time Crawford got to court, he'd been locked up for 69 days, Freedman said.

Considering Crawford had no felony record, the probation officer feared the judge could simply release Crawford immediately, which is why she agreed to house arrest for Crawford, despite her misgivings, according to Freedman.

The house-arrest decision was last-minute, the attorney said, which was why probation wasn't immediately ready to set up Crawford on house arrest.

The probation officer continued to meet with Crawford, including on May 23, 2012, and Crawford told her he wasn't seeing Dowell, Freedman said.

'Maximum supervision': The probation officer placed Crawford on "maximum supervision status" and set up another meeting for May 31, 2012, but Crawford rescheduled that to June 4, 2012, claiming he had a job interview, according to Freedman.

C. Jennifer Dowell

When the probation officer met with Crawford on June 4, 2012, he told her he wasn't in contact with Dowell, Freedman said.

But Crawford lied to the probation officer about seeing Dowell, and he admitted it during a deposition taken for the lawsuit, Freedman said.

"Instead, he was at Ms. Dowell's home, well established there, at her invitation," the attorney said.

Although Crawford had previously been subject to a no-contact order in a case regarding Dowell, it was changed to a "no abusive contact" after Dowell petitioned the court to drop the provision, according to Freedman.

Text messages show Dowell and Crawford had reconciled, he said, and neighbors subsequently confirmed they saw Crawford there in the days before Dowell's murder. Neither Dowell nor her neighbors called police or 911 to report it, he said.

"We're not trying to blame Ms. Dowell for her death," Freedman said, but he noted that Dowell repeatedly refused police assistance and failed to press charges against Crawford.

In August 2010, a Northern York County Regional Police sergeant told Dowell that Crawford would end up killing her if she didn't get away from him, according to Freedman.

'I love him': A county victim-witness advocate had "extensive interactions" with Dowell, trying to offer her help and services, the attorney said.

"She just said, 'Look, I love him and I don't want any interference from the police,'" Freedman said.

"This is not a case where we have a victim of domestic violence who is desperately crying out for help, but the government is turning a deaf ear to those pleas," he said. "This is obviously a tragic case. I just don't think it's an appropriate case to point fingers."

Risk of trial: Freedman said there was a benefit to the county settling the lawsuit.

"There was potential this case would drag on for years and years and years," he said; also, as time passes, the memories of witnesses can fade, or they can die or become unavailable.

Settling the lawsuit avoided a possible $5 million verdict, according to Freedman.

"That's a huge risk," especially if a jury were to decide the case based on their emotions, he said.

Jacob said going to trial would have been a risk for Dowell's estate as well because jurors might not understand the mindsets of domestic-violence victims.

"A lot of people ... don't understand that a lot of times, victims are tricked or pressured back into these relationships," Jacob said. "Crawford was a predator, and the county allowed him to continue to hunt Jen Dowell."

The lawsuit remains active against Crawford.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.