7th Circuit Hears Wrongful-Conviction Case

     CHICAGO (CN) – The 7th Circuit heard oral arguments Monday in a civil rights suit filed by a man who spent 13 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
     In 1995, Alan Beaman was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lockmiller, who was found strangled with an alarm clock cord and stabbed in the chest with scissors. Beaman’s fingerprints were found on the alarm clock. Both were Illinois State University students.
     Thirteen years later, his conviction was overturned due to the state’s failure to give him exculpatory evidence that also would have made Larbi John Murray a suspect. Beaman then filed a civil rights suit against the prosecutor and police on the case.
     In January, U.S. District Judge Joe McDade threw out the suit. He acknowledged that defense counsel had no way of knowing about “Murray’s erratic behavior from steroids, history of domestic assault and possible evasion during the polygraph,” which “suggest he could have been the culprit.”
     But McDade held that none of the defendants had all of the withheld information within its control and therefore none of them could be held liable for withholding the information in its entirety. Only the prosecutor, who has now been dismissed, knew about Murray’s checkered past, the judge explained, and only the police knew about the polygraph failure. The officers were granted immunity because then-existing Illinois state law did not give them a clear duty to disclose that failure.
     Judge Frank Easterbrook picked up this logic today, noting that there could be no liability without some joint action, but that conspiracy charges seemed irrelevant. “What’s conspiracy have to do with this? These are all state actors. Is it possible for employees of the same employer to conspire?”
     “There’s never a smoking gun or memorandum of understanding,” plaintiff’s attorney David Shapiro replied. “The agreement may be tacit.”
     Easterbrook did not buy Shapiro’s logic, and repeatedly asked the attorney why he was even using the term “conspiracy.” As Easterbrook continued to press him, Shapiro gradually shifted to the more general phrase “joint action.”
     “On day one, the defendants resolved that Beaman is the perpetrator,” Shapiro said. “Officers worked with prosecutors to cover up evidence” including the fact that Murray was supposed to testify for the state in another trial and that he was the victim’s former lover and drug dealer.
     “How is that a motive for murder?” Judge Diane Sykes asked.
     Shapiro pointed out that one might ask why Murray had beaten another girlfriend and added that “there was an unusual degree of collaboration between police and prosecutors – over 50 contacts.”
     “That’s hardly unusual,” Sykes said curtly. She appeared ill-disposed toward Shapiro’s case. One exchange especially indicated this.
     “The prosecutor is in the car with the detective, telling him what to put …” Shapiro began.
     “Nothing unusual about that,” Sykes cut in, possibly assuming that Shapiro was going to refer to trial plans.
     But he was not: “… in police reports!” he finished.
     Sykes, a George W. Bush appointee, did not acknowledge that it is unusual for a prosecutor to tell a police officer what to put in a police report.
     After her badgering of Shapiro, Sykes did not ask defense attorney Thomas DiCianni a single difficult question.
     “There is no relevance to conspiracy,” DiCianni began.
     “But there is relevance to joint action,” Judge Ann Claire Williams said.
     “Yeah,” Easterbrook smiled, “of course.”
     His response implied his grilling of Shapiro on the lack of conspiracy did not necessarily spell doom for the plaintiff’s case.
     “Hypothetical question,” Easterbrook said. “Two pieces of exculpatory evidence. One known only to police, the other to the prosecutor. Is anybody liable?”
     “That’s not the evidence in the case,” DiCianni said.
     “I know it’s not, that’s why I called it a hypothetical!” Easterbrook shouted. “Could you answer?”
     DiCianni brought up case specifics again.
     “Could you answer my question please?” Easterbrook said.
     “The answer is it could overturn a conviction, but the standard for civil liability is much different. The state’s attorney did not believe that Murray had a motive. When does a desire to rekindle a romantic relationship become motive for murder?” DiCianni said, echoing Sykes.
     “Part of the theory is that this was a tunnel vision investigation,” said Williams, a former prosecutor.
     “That does not indicate a conspiracy,” DiCianni said.
     “But it’s the context. With Murray, the polygraph was not only inconclusive. He also refused to cooperate.”
     “Our position with the polygraph is qualified immunity,” DiCianni replied.
     “But under Illinois law, polygraphs are admissible,” Easterbrook said.
     “This polygraph was not produced inadvertently because no one considered Murray a suspect,” DiCianni explained. “Was there a hole in his alibi? Possibly. But plaintiffs want to create some new duty where the police have to oversee the prosecutor’s compliance, which would be unworkable and impossible.”
     Shapiro then spoke rapidly, trying to rebut DiCianni’s claims.
     “Murray was instructed 17 or 18 times ‘don’t take deep breaths, just answer yes or no.’ The instructor concluded that this may have been evasive.” He acknowledged that Illinois law at the time may not have required disclosure, but insisted that “it would have been sufficient to convince the judge to let in evidence of alternative suspects.”
     “Judge Sykes very much wants you to lose,” an attending attorney said to Shapiro outside the court. In a brief conversation after the hearing, Shapiro told Courthouse News that he had been on the case for two years and from here on would “just wait for the judges to decide.”

%d bloggers like this: