(CN) - A pair of San Francisco police inspectors are not entitled to qualified immunity from allegations that they withheld exculpatory evidence in a murder case that wrongfully sent two men to jail for 13 years, the 9th Circuit ruled.
John Tennison and Antoine Goff were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the murder of Roderick Shannon.
Five weeks later, Lavinsky Ricard was arrested on narcotics charges and later confessed to shooting Shannon. Inspector Prentice Earl Sanders found that the confession was not credible, because Ricard had denied involvement in the shooting in a previous interview.
The trial court threw out the confession, and another anonymously videotaped confession from Ricard, due to inconsistencies in Ricard's stories. The appeals court affirmed the convictions.
Defense counsel said another interview with a witness to the shooting never made it into evidence. Both defendants were finally freed after being declared factually innocent.
The inspectors claimed immunity, but Judge Tashima ruled that they were under the same obligation to disclose evidence to the defense as prosecutors. Also, the defendants are not required to prove the inspectors acted in bad faith.
Merely placing an interview into a file did not fulfill the inspectors' obligations, according to Tashima.
"Evidence that a person has told the officers they arrested the wrong people, has identified the people involved, including the shooter, and described the cars and the chase," the judge wrote, "should not have been buried in a file, but should have been made known to the prosecutor."
Tashima also rejected the inspectors' claim of absolute immunity because they were not "performing the function of an advocate.
"The purpose of absolute immunity," the judge wrote, "is to protect the judicial process, not any actor in that process."
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.