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10th Circuit to decide if Cheyenne police response to rape led to wrongful conviction

Andrew Johnson was imprisoned 24 years before DNA evidence exonerated him of the rape for which he was wrongly convicted.

(CN) — After a night out drinking in Cheyenne, Laurie Slagle returned to her apartment and was sexually assaulted. Police responded quickly to her screams and found the ID of a man she had smoked a joint with earlier: Andrew Johnson.

Thirty-four years later, the question before the 10th Circuit is whether Cheyenne police officer Alan Spencer wrongly planted Johnson as a suspect in Sagle's mind when he held up the ID before the distraught rape victim and asked, “Was this him?”

A jury found Johnson guilty of sexual assault and burglary charges in 1989, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-four years later, DNA testing on semen collected from Slagle at the hospital identified the rapist as her then-boyfriend Barney Haggberg.

In 2017, Johnson sued the Cheyenne Police Department, along with Spencer and the estate of then-Detective George Stanford on claims of falsifying evidence and violating his civil rights. In particular, Johnson said law enforcement improperly suggested him as a suspect to Slagle, who later identified him as her assailant on the witness stand.

A federal judge granted qualified immunity to law enforcement and dismissed the case in March 2022. Johnson appealed.

Spencer said he found Johnson’s ID near the bathroom, instead of on the coffee table where Johnson had used it to roll a joint and then forgotten it.

U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich, appointed by George W. Bush, asked whether it mattered where in the apartment Johnson’s ID was found.

"What’s the trial tactic you’re seeking to assert here?” Tymkovich asked. “The fact that the identification was on the bedside table or the floor, just explain to me why that matters.”

 Wyoming attorney Robert Schuster represented Johnson on appeal.

“It’s fundamental,” Schuster argued. “If one says the ID was found in front of the bathroom door then that places Mr. Johnson in front of the bathroom door, whereas that’s a completely different thing than Mr. Johnson being at a coffee table yards away in a living room area. It’s impermissibly suggestive to what happened.

“He [Spencer] walks in front of her with an ID and says, ‘Is this the guy?’ That is impermissibly suggestive particularly when you’re dealing with a woman who is sobbing, yelling, and hysterical,” Schuster argued.

In closing, Schuster asked the panel not to lose sight of the fact that an innocent man spent decades in prison for a crime he did not commit.

“Other than the Japanese incarceration at Heart Mountain, this is the most tragic failure of Wyoming’s judicial history,” Schuster said. “That’s the issue."

On behalf of the police, Senior Assistant Attorney General Sam Williams asked the panel to keep context in mind.

“Where that ID was found is not really relevant to the claim we’re dealing with. The question is whether that action was overly suggestive, and we argue that it’s not,” Williams said. “We have a police officer arriving minutes after an assault and presenting an ID he found at a crime scene.”

Attorney Norman Giles, of firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard and Smith, represented the city of Cheyenne.

“One incident over 30 years does not demonstrate an unconstitutional policy or custom,” Giles said. “The city would have no reason to know that over 30 years ago there was a problem with the particular way the ID was presented.”

Whatever police did that night, Donald Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Joel Carson pointed out, Slagle identified Johnson has her assailant. Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome Holmes wondered whether Slagle was intentionally lying or mistaken.

“Is there anything that speaks to the record that she was lying or if she was mistaken?” asked Holmes, a George W. Bush-appointee. Schuster said the case was dismissed before Johnson could collect enough discovery to assess either way.

The hearing was held over Zoom and broadcast on YouTube to an audience of 21. The panel did not indicate when or how they would decide the case.

According to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, Johnson is the only person ever exonerated in the state of Wyoming.  

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Law

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