Bungled Murder Trial May Leave Cops Liable

     (CN) – A Baltimore man cleared by DNA after 20 years in prison for a 1987 rape and murder may show that police officers withheld evidence, the 4th Circuit ruled.
     One day after Colleen Williar was raped, robbed and killed in her Baltimore apartment on Aug. 2, 1987, James Thompson, one of Williar’s neighbors, contacted police about a reward for information about the crime.
     Thompson claimed that he found a knife outside Williar’s apartment and had taken it home and cleaned it before realizing that it could be connected to the crime.
     He changed his story under further questioning, however, saying he retrieved the knife at the request of his friend, James Owens.
     Instead of focusing on Thompson, however, police executed a search warrant on Owens’ apartment. They failed to turn up any physical evidence but nevertheless arrested Owens and had him indicted for burglary, murder and rape.
     Before the trial, prosecutor Marvin Brave tried to resolve his doubts about Thompson’s story by questioning the man further. This led Thompson to change his story again, this time saying that the knife belonged to him and that it went missing after Owens had visited Thompson’s home.
     Thompson also said Owens returned the knife to Thompson with blood on it but told Thompson to keep quiet about it.
     When Brave presented this story at trial, Owens’ counsel did not know that Thompson had changed his story.
     Brave apparently still had doubts after Thompson took the stand and, in the middle of Owens’ trial, ordered testing of a pubic hair found on Williar’s body.
     The test showed that the hair belonged to Thompson, not Owens, and Brave asked Baltimore police officers to interrogate Thompson again.
     Thompson changed his story five more times in a two-hour span. His final version was that he and Owens broke into Williar’s apartment to steal her jewelry. Thompson said Owens raped and killed Williar while Thompson masturbated at the end of the bed.
     The officers did not tell Brave about the other four versions of the story, so neither Brave nor Owens’ counsel questioned Thompson about them when Brave recalled the neighbor to the witness stand.
     When the defense team asked Brave about whether the hair had been tested, Brave answered only that the hair did not belong to Owens.
     After he was convicted in 1998, Owens made several unsuccessful appeals. In 2006 post-conviction DNA testing showed that his DNA did not match the blood and semen evidence at the crime scene.
     The state’s attorney dropped the charges against Owens in 2008, and a court ordered his release from the prison where he had spent the last 20 years.
     In 2011, Owens sued Brave and the interrogating officers, as well as Baltimore’s mayor, police department, city council and state’s attorney’s office, claiming that they violated his rights by withholding evidence.
     After Owens dismissed his claims against the mayor and city council, a federal judge dismissed his claims against the other defendants as time-barred.
     A divided three-judge panel with the 6th Circuit found on Sept. 24, however, that Owens had filed his lawsuit within three years of the date that the charges were dropped.
     Though the Richmond, Va.-based court affirmed that Owens could not sue the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, it found that immunity does not shield Officers Gary Dunnigan, Jay Landsman and Thomas Pelligrini from liability.
     “Had the officers properly disclosed Thompson’s statements, his inconsistencies would have lent support to the contention advanced by Owens’ defense that Thompson, not Owens, had raped and murdered Ms. Williar,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court. “At a minimum, the inconsistencies would have aided Owens in his attempt to discredit Thompson’s testimony and sow reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.”
     Chief Judge William Traxler Jr. wrote in partial dissent that Owens was too late in filing his suit because the clock began ticking when he discovered the alleged nondisclosure of the evidence.
     As for the officers, Traxler said they were entitled to qualified immunity “because it was not clearly established in the spring of 1988 that a police officer’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence made the officer potentially liable for a violation of a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights.”
     Judge James Wynn Jr. meanwhile wrote in a separate partial dissent that the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office was not entitled to sovereign immunity.

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