767 F.3d 379 (4th Cir. 2014), 12-2173, Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys office
|Citation:||767 F.3d 379|
|Opinion Judge:||DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge:|
|Party Name:||JAMES OWENS, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. BALTIMORE CITY STATE'S ATTORNEYS OFFICE; MARVIN BRAVE, Individually and in his Official Capacity as an Assistant of the Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office; BALTIMORE CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT; GARY DUNNIGAN, Individually and in his Official Capacity as an Officer and Detective of the Baltimore City Police De|
|Attorney:||Charles N. Curlett, Jr., LEVIN & CURLETT LLC, Baltimore, Maryland; Laura Ginsberg Abelson, BROWN, GOLDSTEIN & LEVY, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Daniel C. Beck, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland; Michele J. McDonald, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimo...|
|Judge Panel:||Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and MOTZ and WYNN, Circuit Judges. Judge Motz wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler concurs as to Parts III., IV.A., and V. and dissents as to Parts II. and IV.B., and Judge Wynn concurs, except for Part III. Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Wynn each wrote a s...|
|Case Date:||September 24, 2014|
|Court:||United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit|
Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that defendants violated his constitutional rights by intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence during his 1988 trial for rape and murder. The district court dismissed the complaint on statute-of-limitations grounds, and, in the alternative, the district court held that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office enjoyed sovereign immunity,... (see full summary)
Argued January 28, 2014
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Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. (1:11-cv-03295-GLR). George L. Russell III, District Judge.
James Owens brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, an assistant State's Attorney, the Baltimore City Police Department, and several Baltimore City police officers. In his complaint, Owens alleges that the defendants violated his constitutional rights by intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence during his 1988 trial for the rape and murder of Colleen Williar. The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety against all defendants on statute-of-limitations grounds. In the alternative, the court held that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office enjoyed sovereign immunity, the individual police officers enjoyed qualified immunity, and Owens's cause of action against the Baltimore City Police Department failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Owens appeals the dismissal of his complaint for failure to state a claim. Accordingly, we recount the facts as alleged by Owens in his complaint, accepting as true all well-pleaded facts. See Minor v. Bostwick Labs., Inc., 669 F.3d 428, 430 n.1 (4th Cir. 2012).
In the early morning hours of August 2, 1987, Colleen Williar was raped, robbed, and murdered in the second-floor bedroom of her Baltimore City apartment. The following day, one of Williar's neighbors, James Thompson, contacted the city police department to inquire about a reward it had offered for information relating to Ms. Williar's death. Thompson claimed that he had found a knife outside of Ms. Williar's apartment the previous evening, which he had carried home and cleaned before realizing its connection to the crime. Over the course of Thompson's conversation with police, however, it became apparent that Thompson had not simply " happened" on the knife, as he originally claimed. Rather, in response to questioning from Officers Thomas Pelligrini, Gary Dunnigan, and Jay Landsman (collectively, " the Officers" ), Thompson asserted that he had retrieved the knife at the behest of his friend, James Owens. The Officers executed a search warrant at Owens's apartment, but found no physical evidence linking Owens to the crime. Even though the search was fruitless, police arrested Owens on the basis of Thompson's statement. A grand jury then indicted Owens for Ms. Williar's murder, rape, and burglary.
On the eve of Owens's trial, Assistant State's Attorney (" ASA" ) Marvin Brave, the prosecutor assigned to Owens's case,
began to question the veracity of Thompson's version of events. When ASA Brave raised these concerns with Thompson, the witness retracted his statement and offered another explanation for the knife's acquisition. This time, Thompson stated that the knife belonged to him, but he claimed that it had gone missing after Owens visited Thompson at his home. The day after Ms. Williar's murder, Owens assertedly returned the knife to Thompson, who noticed blood on the weapon's blade and handle. When Thompson questioned Owens about the origin of the blood, Owens denied using the weapon and told Thompson to keep quiet about it.
At trial, ASA Brave presented only this third version of events to the jury. Brave never informed defense counsel about Thompson's earlier accounts, and thus, when cross-examining Thompson, defense counsel was unaware that the witness had changed his story several times over the course of the investigation.
Nevertheless, defense counsel apparently cast enough doubt on Thompson's testimony to prompt ASA Brave to seek out additional evidence of Owens's guilt. To this end, mid-trial, ASA Brave ordered testing of a pubic hair found on Ms. Williar's body. When the results were returned, however, they indicated that Thompson -- not Owens -- matched the sample. Concerned that Thompson was involved in the crimes, ASA Brave instructed the Officers to reinterrogate Thompson.
At ASA Brave's direction, Officers Pelligrini, Dunnigan, and Landsman brought Thompson into the stationhouse and questioned him for two hours. The Officers accused Thompson of lying on the witness stand, warned him that he " was in a lot of trouble," and asserted that he could be charged with a crime for his misrepresentations to the jury. After receiving their warnings, Thompson stated that he wanted to change his story yet again. In fact, over the course of the two-hour interview, Thompson changed his story five additional times.
In his first new attempt, Thompson told the Officers that he and Owens had broken into Ms. Williar's apartment on the day of the murder only to find Ms. Williar already dead in her bedroom. When the Officers replied that they did not believe him, Thompson offered another iteration. This time, he contended that Owens had raped and murdered Ms. Williar upstairs while Thompson waited downstairs in the living room. The Officers responded that there was evidence that Thompson had been on the second floor, and thus, his amended account could not be true. After this prompt, Thompson admitted that he had been on the second floor, but insisted that he had hidden in the bathroom during Owens's crimes. The Officers again rejected Thompson's story, stating that investigators had found physical evidence of Thompson's presence in Ms. Williar's bedroom. In response, Thompson admitted that he had been in the bedroom while Owens raped and killed Ms. Williar, but he insisted that he had refused to participate in any assault. At this point, the Officers informed Thompson that his pubic hair had been found on Ms. Williar. Faced with the forensic evidence, Thompson offered a fifth version of events. In this account, Thompson claimed that he and Owens had broken into Ms. Williar's apartment with the intent to steal her jewelry. When the pair found the victim alone in her bedroom, Owens raped and killed her, while Thompson masturbated at the foot of her bed.
After the Officers elicited this latest account, Officer Landsman told ASA Brave about Thompson's final version of events. None of the Officers disclosed that Thompson had offered several other accounts of
what happened, all of which differed dramatically from the version of events related to ASA Brave as well as from the physical evidence.
Following his conversation with the Officers, ASA Brave immediately called Thompson back to the witness stand and had him share with the jury his new account of what happened. However, because only the Officers knew of the inconsistencies in Thompson's statements, neither ASA Brave nor defense counsel questioned Thompson about the four inconsistent versions of the story that the witness had offered before he settled on his final account. Moreover, neither ASA Brave nor the Officers told defense counsel about the discovery of Thompson's pubic hair. Indeed, when defense counsel inquired about whether there had been forensic testing of the hair, ASA Brave represented to the court that " there [hadn't] been any match made" between the sample and a suspect.1
The jury convicted Owens of burglary and felony murder, and the trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Owens filed an unsuccessful appeal, and, over the course of the next two decades, several unsuccessful state-court petitions for post-conviction relief. In 2006, however, a state court granted Owens's request for post-conviction DNA testing...
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