Posts Tagged ‘wrongful imprisonment’

The U.S. Supreme Court has put police stations all around the country on notice: if you withhold evidence you can be sued.  The court let stand a civil jury verdict against two LAPD detectives who concealed evidence that kept an innocent man in jail for more than 2 years awaiting trial.  The justices turned down an appeal from the LA city attorney who contended that because the man was freed before trial, the police officers could not be sued for hiding evidence.

Michael Walker, who is now deceased, was standing in a store in the Crenshaw neighborhood of LA in August of 2005 when a store clerk thought he looked like a middle-aged black man who had robbed the store a few days earlier. Police were called and Walker was arrested. He agreed to be interviewed and have his belongings searched.

No evidence was ever discovered linking him to the robbery, but detectives saw him as a prime suspect in not just one robbery, but more than a dozen in the area. Each time, the thief gave the clerk or cashier a handwritten note demanding money. Usually the note misspelled the word “start” as in “start shooting.”

Walker maintained his innocence. Two detectives, Steven Moody and Robert Pulido still believed they had the right man. They held Walker in jail pending investigation. To justify his detention and $1 million bail, they filed a report telling prosecutors that, “Since the arrest of Walker, the crime spree caused by the ‘Demand Note Robber’ has ceased.”

This was in fact untrue.

Two days after Walker was arrested, a man matching the description robbed the Golden Bird restaurant presenting a note to the cashier. Later that same day, a Burger King was robbed in the same manner. The notes both misspelled “start”.

The detectives later admitted under oath that they knew the robberies continued and didn’t tell anyone, including prosecutors. In other words, that Walker couldn’t have committed them. So why did they lie to keep an innocent man in jail? That may never be known.

When attorneys representing Walker learned that his fingerprints were not found at the store where he was arrested, they asked the LAPD for information on other robberies. The LAPD refused saying it was too burdensome to the department.

Later, a judge ordered the information to be disclosed. That is when defense attorneys learned that another man matching the description had been apprehended fleeing a robbery and that his fingerprints were found at the scene of the store Walker was arrested in.  When prosecutors learned of this, they dropped the charges against Walker.

A judge later pronounced him innocent of the crimes. Walker sued the LAPD and the detectives for violations of his constitutional rights and deprivation of his liberty without due process. A jury awarded him $106,000.  The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, ruling that the Constitution protects suspects from “prolonged” pre-trial detention when concealed evidence could have demonstrated their innocence.

The city attorney’s office appealed to the Supreme Court. They argued that the constitutional ruling involving withheld evidence should only apply to a right to a fair trial not to arrest or pretrial detention.

The high court simply denied their appeal (Moody v. Tatum) without comment or dissent.  Mary Tatum is the administrator of Walker’s estate.

Walker died in 2011 from alcohol-related health problems. John C. Burton, who represented Walker in the civil rights case, said Walker’s health deteriorated after his release from jail. At one point, Walker became homeless. Burton said the jury award, which did not include any punitive damages, was relatively low because Walker was poor and could not show he suffered major economic loss.

The award is expected to be inherited by his mother.

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A federal jury in Dallas, Texas has awarded Hephzibah Olivia Lord, 36, $800,000 after she was wrongfully incarcerated for the murder of her boyfriend.  The jury determined that detective Dwayne Thompson showed “reckless disregard” for the civil rights of Lord.  She was arrested in 2010 after her boyfriend, Michael Burnside, 30, was shot and killed.  It was later determined that Burnside had shot himself after drinking heavily and arguing with Lord.  Thompson argued to the jury that he acted on all information that was available to him during his investigation, but the jury disagreed.  Lord spent 9 days in jail until a grand jury declined to indict her.

Rob Warden, the Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and who recently authored a study on How and Why Illinois Abolished the Death Penalty, is stepping down.  He recently spoke about the work of the center and others who are finding and trying to free innocent people imprisoned in America.  Warden, over his career, has helped exonerate 60 people, many of which were sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit.  He noted the exposure of non-DNA innocence cases because of the discovery of DNA:

“Part of it was the fortuitous advent of DNA forensic technology, which suddenly showed that many people had been wrongfully convicted. And that, in turn, gave credence to the non-DNA cases where there was persuasive evidence of wrongful convictions. It just changed the momentum.”

He talked about exposing the flaws in the justice system, “[V]irtually nobody believed that people would confess to crimes they hadn’t committed. We have been extremely important in exposing the phenomenon of false confessions and the psychological phenomena that lead to it. And we’ve exposed the fallacies of evidence that were often used to convict people, including misinterpretations of forensic results and the use of so-called jailhouse snitch testimony. People never really took that seriously until we started showing that they were leading to serious miscarriages of justices.”

Four decades and 60 exonerations later, Rob Warden is stepping down as Executive Director, but there is still progress that needs to be made for innocent defendants and the wrongfully convicted.