Johnson v. Balt. Police Dep't, CIVIL ELH-19-0698

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtEllen L. Hollander United States District Judge
PartiesJEROME JOHNSON, Plaintiff, v. BALTIMORE POLICE DEP'T, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCIVIL ELH-19-0698
Decision Date30 September 2022

JEROME JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.

BALTIMORE POLICE DEP'T, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL No. ELH-19-0698

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 30, 2022


MEMORANDUM OPINION

Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge

This wrongful conviction action is rooted in events that occurred in Baltimore City in 1988 and 1989. Aaron Taylor was murdered in 1988, at the age of twenty-two. In 1989, a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted plaintiff Jerome Lamont Johnson and two others of the murder. Johnson, who was 20 years old at the time of the murder (ECF 151-2 at 4), was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a consecutive term of twenty years' incarceration for a related gun offense.

In July 2018, the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office (the “SAO”) and plaintiff filed a Joint Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence, pursuant to § 8-301 of the Criminal Procedure Article (“C.P.”) of the Maryland Code. ECF 151-30. It was supported by a memorandum of law. Id. at 3-18 (“SAO Memorandum”) (collectively, the “Joint Petition”). The Joint Petition followed an investigation conducted by the SAO's Conviction Integrity Unit (“CIU”). See ECF 151-1 (“CIU Memorandum”).[1] The Circuit Court for Baltimore City (Peters, J.) granted the Joint Petition and vacated plaintiff's convictions.

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After the SAO dismissed the charges against Johnson, he filed suit against the Baltimore City Police Department (“BPD”), as well as four former BPD officers in their individual capacities: Frank Barlow, Daniel Boone, Kevin Davis, and Gerald Goldstein (the “Officer Defendants”). See ECF 1. In sum, Johnson contends that, as a result of the Officer Defendants' failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, the BPD's failure to establish a policy requiring disclosure of exculpatory evidence, as well as its failure to train BPD officers in regard to their constitutional obligations, he served approximately three decades in prison for a murder that he did not commit.[2]

At the outset of the case, various defendants moved to dismiss the suit. See ECF 22; ECF 24; ECF 25. By Memorandum Opinion and Order of March 10, 2020 (ECF 45, ECF 46), I granted the motion in part and denied it in part.

Johnson then filed an Amended Complaint (ECF 116), seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The Amended Complaint contains eight counts. Counts I through V are founded on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Counts VI through VIII assert claims arising under Maryland law. Count I is titled “Failure to Disclose Exculpatory and Impeachment Evidence.” In Count I, plaintiff asserts a claim against the Officer Defendants for a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Id. In Count II, Johnson brings a claim for “Fabrication of Evidence,” in violation of his due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Count III asserts a claim for “malicious prosecution” against the Officer Defendants, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Count IV lodges a claim against the Officer Defendants for “Failure to Intervene.” Count V asserts “a Monell Claim”

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against the BPD under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and pursuant to Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Count VI, lodged against the Officer Defendants, asserts malicious prosecution under Maryland law. Count VII, also filed under Maryland law, alleges a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. And, in Count VIII, Johnson asserts a claim against the BPD for indemnification.

Several motions are pending. Along with the motions, the parties have submitted approximately 6,000 pages of exhibits.

Defendants have filed a “Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint as a Litigation Sanction Based On The Use Of False Or Fabricated Evidence” (ECF 137) (the “Sanction Motion”). They urge the Court to dismiss the suit, claiming that plaintiff secured his exoneration through the use of false and fabricated evidence: the affidavit of Alvin Hill, one of Johnson's codefendants, and the affidavit of Paul Burton, with whom Johnson had been incarcerated. Additionally, defendants contend that Johnson intentionally attempted to influence the testimony of at least three potential witnesses in connection with his effort to vacate his convictions.

Plaintiff opposes the Sanction Motion. ECF 152. Notably, Johnson concedes that the affidavits contain false information. However, he maintains that he was not aware of the false information when he submitted the affidavits. Id. at 15. And, in any event, Johnson argues that his exoneration did not depend on the assertions set forth in these affidavits. Id. at 23. Moreover, with respect to Johnson's communications with potential witnesses, he contends that his communications were not improper and did not prejudice the case. ECF 152 at 8. Defendants have replied. ECF 162.

The Officer Defendants have moved for summary judgment (ECF 138), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 138-1) (collectively, the “Officer Motion”). In general, plaintiff

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opposes the Officer Motion. ECF 151. The Officer Defendants have replied. ECF 163. However, plaintiff “requests to dismiss Frank Barlow and Count II (Fabrication) against all Defendants.” ECF 151 at 11 n.1. I shall grant those requests.

The BPD has also moved for summary judgment. ECF 136. The BPD motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 136-1) (collectively, the “BPD Motion”).

In the alternative, all defendants jointly moved to bifurcate the Monell claim against the BPD, and to stay discovery as to the Monell claim, pending resolution of plaintiff's claims against the Officer Defendants. ECF 140. The motion is supported by a memorandum of law. ECF 140-1 (collectively, the “Bifurcation Motion”).

Johnson has filed a consolidated opposition to both the BPD Motion and the Bifurcation Motion. ECF 156. Both the BPD (ECF 164) and the Officer Defendants (ECF 167) have jointly replied as to bifurcation.

The Court held a hearing on the motions on September 23, 2022, at which argument was presented. ECF 174. The defense also used a powerpoint presentation. ECF 175. For the reasons that follow, I shall dismiss all claims against Frank Barlow; dismiss Count II; grant the Sanction Motion; alternatively, grant the Officer Motion and the BPD Motion; and deny the Bifurcation Motion, as moot.

I. Factual Background[3]

Aaron Taylor was shot to death in Baltimore on July 14, 1988. Johnson was one of four people charged with Taylor's murder, and one of three who were convicted. Two of Johnson's

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codefendants, Alvin Hill, who was the shooter, and Reginald Dorsey, have since died. See ECF 138-1 at 11 n.3 (noting Dorsey's death); ECF 152 at 35 (same); ECF 151-1 at 4; ECF 152-9 (Hill's Autopsy Report, dated April 23, 2017). At the time of their deaths, Hill and Dorsey remained incarcerated for their roles in Taylor's murder. ECF 138-1 at 11 n.3; ECF 151-1 at 4. Johnson's defense attorney, M. Gordon Tayback, and the presiding judge, Joseph Pines, have also died. And, the establishment where the murder occurred has been razed.

Some of the individuals pertinent to this case were known by more than one name or by a nickname. For instance, plaintiff used his middle name, “Lamont”; Hill used the nickname of “Poopie”; Dorsey used the nickname of “Buttons” or “Butt”; and Taylor, the victim, used the name “Hooper.” ECF 151-2 at 45, 46; ECF 138-3 at 8.

Notably, the Homicide File for the case is not available in its original condition, at least partly because the litigation has continued for decades, which has affected the content. Plaintiff also notes that “no fewer than four versions of the SAO file have been produced . . . .” ECF 151 at 25. Thus, plaintiff contends that “there is no definitive record of what documents were contained in the SAO file at the relevant time.” Id. at 29. In any event, the parties did not submit with the motions any version of the SAO file or the defense attorney's file.

A. The BPD Investigation

On July 14, 1988, shortly after 1:00 a.m., Aaron Taylor “left the area of Virginia Avenue and traveled to the Night Owl Bar located at 3602 Woodland Avenue” in Baltimore. ECF 151-1

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(SAO Memorandum) at 5.[4] The front door of the Night Owl opened to a small area with a soda machine and a protected, glass-enclosed counter, where customers could buy snacks and beverages. ECF 138-2 (Trial Transcript) at 109-10.

Lauren Lipscomb, who served as the Division Chief of the CIU, set forth the following account in the CIU Memorandum, ECF 151-1 at 5:

Once in front of the location, Victim[[5]] was approached by several men and the shooter (later identified as Alvin Hill, aka Poopie, and hereinafter referred to as “Shooter”). An argument ensued. Victim fled from the group to the inside of the Night Owl Bar. Victim grabbed a patron (later identified as Marvin Reid and hereinafter referred to as “Shield”) and used this patron as a human shield, hiding behind same from the Shooter. The Shooter yelled multiple times for the Shield to “duck”. Victim screamed “don't shoot”. During this, store owner Jung Kim (hereinafter referred to as “Owner”) called 911. After moments went by with the Shield struggling to break free and Victim clutching on to him, the Shield and Victim fell to the ground. Shooter approached and fired multiple shots down into Victim. Victim tried crawling toward the doorway and collapsed. The Shield's foot was struck by a bullet. The Shooter and the guys from outside all fled. The Shield remained until police arrived. EMTs arrived and Victim was pronounced dead at the scene. Victim's family responded. Victim's mother identified Victim.

The Night Owl was adjacent to a basketball court and a playground on the corner of Woodland Avenue and Reisterstown Road. ECF 138-2 at 112.[6] A fence ran along the sidewalk of Woodland Avenue...

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