SF to Face Trial for Officer's Misconduct
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A man who was wrongly incarcerated for 18 years after police suppressed exculpatory evidence can take San Francisco to trial, a federal judge ruled.
Caramad Conley sued the San Francisco City-County and former SFPD inspector Prentice Earl Sanders for civil rights violations in 2012, a year after obtaining habeas relief. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Marla Miller had found that "numerous constitutional violations committed by Sanders" kept Conley from receiving a fair trial, according to the man's original complaint.
Police arrested Conley three years after a drive-by shooting that killed two and injured 13 during a surge of gang violence in 1989. Despite the lack of physical or eyewitness evidence linking Conley to the shooting, a jury convicted him in 1994 - based largely on the testimony of two witnesses whom Sanders had allegedly bribed to testify against Conley.
The prosecution's linchpin witness, Clifford Polk, testified that Conley bragged to him about the shooting. He recanted his testimony in 2005 after meeting with representatives of the Northern California Innocence Project, a program run by Santa Clara University - at the time with assistance from Golden Gate University School of Law - dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions.
Conley claimed to have discovered evidence that Sanders bribed Polk, who died in 2007, in exchange for false testimony at Conley's trial.
"Polk explained that Sanders and [SFPD homicide investigator Napoleon] Hendrix pressured him into falsely implicating Conley in the shooting by telling Polk that they were after Conley specifically and needed Polk to incriminate Conley," the complaint states.
Hendrix is not a party to Conley's complaint.
Conley claims that Polk admitted lying at trial, adding that the man came forward after 18 years because of the guilt he felt over sending an innocent man to prison. Additionally, Conley discovered after winning his release that Sanders bribed another witness, John Johnson, with sexual favors from a female inmate in exchange for his perjured testimony.
Unlike Polk, Johnson has never recanted his testimony. Instead, he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege at a deposition for Conley's lawsuit and declined to discuss any of his previous testimony.
Sanders allegedly concealed the paper trails for both witnesses and - if he informed prosecutor Al Giannini of his scheme at all - the prosecution illegally withheld details of Sanders' arrangements with Polk and Johnson from Conley's attorney.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Joseph Spero found that Sanders cannot be held liable for Polk's false testimony, since it is the prosecutor's job to correct perjury by a state witness.
Denying San Francisco summary judgment on Tuesday, however, the judge said that a reasonable jury could find that Sanders both violated Conley's civil rights and acted under color of law with his plot to convict the man of double homicide.
"Defendants do not contend that Sanders was under no obligation to disclose impeachment evidence, but do argue that Sanders made sufficient disclosures to Giannini as a matter of law," Spero wrote. "The heart of defendants' argument is that the Brady v. Maryland duty is a prosecutorial duty, and that police should not be held to the same standards as prosecutors.
"The court finds that defendants' argument begs for abuse and runs counter to Brady precedent," Spero continued. "If a law enforcement officer may, as a matter of law, fulfill his or her constitutional Brady duty by disclosing only a portion of exculpatory and impeachment evidence, even the duties imposed on prosecutors - to disclose exculpatory material in the possession of investigators - would be insufficient to protect against abuse. Investigators could thwart the otherwise reasonable efforts of the prosecutor by not disclosing material (as here), and, in the absence of a habeas proceeding, the evidence might never come to light. One of the virtues of claims under Section 1983 is that investigators know that they can be held personally liable if they withhold exculpatory material. The Ninth Circuit has clearly held that 'Brady and Giglio impose obligations not on the prosecutor, but on the government as a whole.'" (Parentheses in ruling)
Spero also declined to grant Sanders qualified immunity, using a previous - and similar - case involving Sanders and Hendrix as precedent. In that case, Tennsion v. San Francisco, Sanders had argued that the Brady obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence applied only to prosecutors, and that police officers had no affirmative disclosure obligation under Brady at that time.
Spero said Tuesday that it made sense for the 9th Circuit to reject "that artificial distinction."
"If police officers are not held accountable for their actions, then the utility of Section 1983 actions in deterring wrongful conduct in the future will be reduced," he added. "It makes no sense to find a constitutional violation under Brady when a police officer fails to disclose material exculpatory evidence but then hold that only the prosecutor, and not the police officer, is responsible for that constitutional violation.
"Moreover, Sanders is not merely accused of negligently failing to disclose impeachment evidence. He is accused of deliberately concealing material impeachment evidence - including conjugal visits for Johnson and cash payments to Polk in exchange for testimony. Almost every circuit court to consider whether it was clearly established (in 1994 or earlier) that a police officer violated Brady by deliberately concealing evidence has answered that question in the affirmative." (Parentheses in ruling)
Spero granted Conley partial summary judgment for his color-of-law claim, noting that San Francisco has conceded several times that Sanders acted in his official capacity at all relevant times. The prejudice element of Conley's Brady claim is in dispute, however, and must be hashed out at trial, according to the ruling.
Another matter for trial involves whether prosecutors informed Conley's attorney that Polk had received cash and other benefits, Spero said.
"Giannini testified that it was his 'recollection' that he informed Donald Bergerson [Conley's public defender] about Polk's receipt of witness protection funds 'at regular intervals,'" the opinion states, citing deposition records. "Conley contends that Giannini's testimony is too general to create a genuine issue of material fact for trial. The court disagrees. A reasonable jury may find that given the lapse in time, Giannini should not be expected to remember the specific instances in which he informed Bergerson about the benefits provided to Polk."
Earlier this month, Spero vacated a Nov. 14 trial date. The parties return to court on Dec. 6.