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Denver detectives ask 10th Circuit to revive qualified immunity over 14-year-old’s coerced murder confession

Detectives investigating the murder of a school teacher ignored at least 65 denials of involvement made by the then 14-year-old.

(CN) — Four Denver detectives asked the 10th Circuit on Thursday to allow qualified immunity to shield them from claims brought by a man who had been coerced into confessing to the murder of a teacher in 2000 when he was 14 years old.

Emily Johnson, a 29-year-old schoolteacher, was brutally assaulted and killed on Jan. 1, 2000, then her Lexus was stolen. Law enforcement arrested then 14-year-old Lawrence Montoya after witnesses claimed to see him exiting the vehicle later that day.

Through interrogation, threats, false evidence ploys and leading questions, the detectives coerced a confession later used to convict him of murder and sentence him to life without parole.

In 2014, Montoya entered a plea deal, trading a credited 10-year-sentence for a guilty plea of accessory to murder. He sued the city and county of Denver in June 2016 over the forced confession. A federal judge has twice refused Denver's requests to dismiss the lawsuit, first in 2017 and again in 2021. Each time the detectives appealed.

U.S. Circuit Judge Joel M. Carson, appointed by Donald Trump, attempted to summarize the argument at a hearing Thursday.

“The argument is your client wasn’t on notice in 2000 because there wasn’t a rule back then that applied to this situation, and now we’re jerking the rug out from under you. It’s a situation where there was no rule, and your position is my client couldn’t have known there would be a rule in the future?” Carson asked.

D.J. Goldfarb, representing Detective R.D. Scheider, agreed with the characterization. Goldfarb practices with Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti.

Police arrested Montoya based on an affidavit identifying three Hispanic males running from a stolen vehicle, which contained blood evidence connected to Johnson's murder

“If that sentence wasn’t in the affidavit would your argument fail?” questioned Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich, a George W. Bush appointee.

Goldfarb said yes.

U.S. Circuit Judge Veronica S. Rossman, appointed by Joe Biden, wanted to know why the detectives weren’t challenging the lower court's fact-finding that the information given without the coerced falsities didn’t even support probable cause.

Montoya’s attorney, David Fisher, said the detectives tried to challenge the fact-finding and failed.

“We’re here on a Franks violation, which has been the law of the land for well over half a century,” said Fisher, who practices with Fisher and Bryialsen attorneys. “The well-pleaded complaint established that the defendants worked together to introduce falsities into an arrest warrant which was then used to arrest Mr. Montoya.”

Represented by Peter Doherty of Lasater and Martin, Detectives Michel Martinez and Martin Vigil, along with Lt. Jonathan Priest argued they can't be held liable because they didn’t write the arrest warrant that led to the detainment of Montoya.

Fisher painted a picture for the panel of 14-year-old Montoya, who weighed 110 pounds and stood five foot three, being interrogated by the three intimidating adults.

“You have to watch that video to see the despair and the distraught in Mr. Montoya’s face while the detectives refuse to take his denial 65 times,” Fisher said.

Tymkovich steered Fisher toward the legal argument, asking whether Montoya being identified with the stolen Lexus gave law enforcement probable cause.

“If all that is left is that three Hispanic males fled the scene, how does that mean there’s a substantial probability Mr. Montoya committed a crime?” Fisher asked. “Yes, he admitted he had gone on a joyride with these two individuals. He did not admit in the interview that he was with them sometime later when they abandoned the car, so there is a big leap there as to whether he was there when they abandoned the car, let alone committed a crime.”

The panel met in person at the Byron White U.S. Courthouse in Denver. The hearing was broadcast to 27 viewers via YouTube. The court did not indicate when or how it would decide the case.

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