(CN) – The 11th Circuit on Friday begrudgingly granted a former Georgia district attorney qualified immunity from claims that he defamed a wrongfully convicted prisoner in retaliation for seeking compensation after his exoneration.
Spencer Lawton, the former district attorney for Chatham County, encouraged the Georgia General Assembly to dismiss a bill proposed by legislators to award Douglas Echols $1.6 million after he was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for rape and kidnapping.
Echols filed a lawsuit alleging Lawton violated his First and 14th Amendment rights, but a federal judge dismissed his claims and awarded Lawton qualified immunity, which shields public officials from being sued for acting within their official capacities.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit affirmed Friday in a 24-page ruling.
“Although we conclude that Echols’s complaint states a valid claim of retaliation under the First Amendment, we agree with the district court that Lawton enjoys qualified immunity because Echols’s right was not clearly established when Lawton violated it,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote for the court.
Three assailants kidnapped and raped Donna Givens in Savannah in 1986, and the victim’s eyewitness identification of Echols as one of them led to his arrest and a 15-year prison sentence.
Echols served seven years in prison before DNA testing revealed he was not a culprit, resulting in his exoneration.
Georgia lawmakers introduced a bill to pay Echols $1.6 million for his wrongful convictions four years after his indictment was dismissed, but DA Lawton contested it.
Before the bill could enter the floor of the General Assembly, Lawton wrote a letter to legislators falsely stating that Echols remained under indictment, according to court records. He allegedly urged legislators not to presume Echols innocent despite his exoneration, and succeeded in blocking the bill.
Echols argued in federal court that Lawton deprived him of his presumption of innocence and his right to due process, but the court dismissed his claims, ruling that Lawton had operated in his official capacity when he sent the letter.
Though the 11th Circuit on Friday found that Lawton’s alleged statements were libelous, the three judges said they are bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent to rule against Echols.
“When a plaintiff complains that a public official has violated the Constitution, qualified immunity shields the official from individual liability unless he had fair notice that his alleged conduct would violate ‘the supreme Law of the Land,’” Judge Pryor wrote. “Because Lawton lacked that fair notice, he enjoys qualified immunity from Echols’s claim of retaliation.”
The panel also rejected Echols’ due process claim.
“The First Amendment protects Echols’s right to be free from retaliation by Lawton, a public official, for the exercise of Echols’s right to speak,” Pryor said. “And the Due Process Clause cannot be used to supplement that substantive right.”
In a “reluctant” concurrence, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Gilman, sitting by designation from the Sixth Circuit, wrote, “There can be no doubt that Lawton’s false statement to the Georgia legislature that Echols was still under indictment for kidnapping and rape was intended to injure Echols.”
But legal precedent that existed in the 11th Circuit at the time of the lower court’s ruling did not clearly establish that Lawton’s actions violated Echols’s constitutional rights, according to Gilman.
Several cases from other circuits, he added, hold that defamatory speech by a public official does not constitute First Amendment retaliation “in the absence of a threat, coercion, or intimidation.”
“My only comfort with this result is knowing that if another official in this circuit henceforth engages in conduct similar to Lawton’s, he or she will not be entitled to hide behind the doctrine of qualified immunity,” Gilman wrote.
U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat also sat on the panel.