(CN) - An innocent man imprisoned for 22 years for the brutal rape and murder of two children may sue the police officers who fabricated his confession despite evidence implicating the real killer, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
"Except when an innocent defendant is executed, we hardly can conceive of a worse miscarriage of justice," the federal appeals court in Philadelphia said.
Tyrone and Tina Urquhart were 8 and 7 years old, respectively, when they were murdered in the basement of their Plainfield, N.J., apartment building in 1985.
Tina had been raped, beaten and strangled to death. Tyrone had been sexually assault, mutilated with scissors and killed with five nails hammered into his brain.
All evidence pointed to next-door neighbor and convicted sex offender Clifton Hall, who, when interviewed by police, asked whether he was "going to be locked up."
The police did not investigate this comment any further, however, and instead focused their attention on Byron Halsey, a mildly retarded man and admitted poor reader with a sixth-grade education.
At the time, Halsey was living with the Tyrone and Tina's mother, and "considered her children to be his own," according to the judgment.
Police took Halsey to the police station for questioning and ran a polygraph test, which Halsey passed with "the strongest truthful score possible," according to his uncontested expert report, written years later.
Investigating officer Frank Pfeiffer nevertheless told Halsey he had failed the polygraph test, and that other witnesses had debunked his alibi.
Though the cop forcefully insisted that Halsey was involved in the crimes, Halsey claims that he maintained his innocence throughout the interrogation. He said he signed a statement the detectives set in front of him to "get away" from them, and because he "fear[ed] for [his] life."
Pfeifer testified that Halsey "went into some form of a trance" by the end of the investigation, began crying and "talking basically in one syllable sentences."
The purported confession detailed the facts of the crime as investigators knew them at the time. Further investigation revealed inconsistencies between the crime and the confession, but Halsey's apparent knowledge of nonpublic details of the murders convinced the prosecutor to charge him with the offenses.
Halsey was given two life sentences and narrowly avoided the death penalty.
He spent 22 years in prison until a DNA test excluded him as Tina's rapist in 2006, and instead tied Hall to the crimes. A reopened investigation found that "there was no evidence linking Byron Halsey to that murder scene at all, at all."
Hall was indicted for the murders, but died in prison before trial.
A federal judge in Newark found that qualified immunity shielded Pfeiffer and other investigating officers from Halsey's civil rights claims against them, but the 3rd Circuit revived Halsey's claims Thursday.
"We reaffirm what has been apparent for decades to all reasonable police officers: a police officer who fabricates evidence against a criminal defendant to obtain his conviction violates the defendant's constitutional right to due process of law," Judge Morton Greenberg wrote for the three-judge panel.
The lower court's ruling in favor of the officers was "untenable," as it would condone police actions to "frame" suspects," Greenberg added.
"The district court concluded that there was probable cause to charge Halsey even without considering his confession," the 72-page opinion states. "Even if we agreed with this conclusion (and we do not), we believe that no sensible concept of ordered liberty is consistent with law enforcement cooking up its own evidence." (Parentheses in original.)
A prosecutor testified that Halsey's false confession was instrumental in Halsey's indictment and conviction, especially as it was the only direct evidence linking Halsey to the crimes, according to the ruling.
"It is important to recognize that, unlike issues requiring a technical understanding, the question of whether a criminal defendant was coerced is a matter well within 'lay competence' and thus a jury is not foreclosed from considering whether there was coercion even if there is 'unequivocal, uncontradicted and unimpeached testimony of an expert' addressing the issue," Greenberg wrote.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.