Free After Seven Years, He Can’t Sue the Cop

     (CN) – Despite nearly seven years in prison for an attempted murder he did not commit, Ronald Ross cannot take an Oakland police sergeant to trial for malicious prosecution, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
     U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James granted summary judgment to the City of Oakland and Sgt. Steven Lovell. Ross claimed Lovell coerced a witness to identify him as the shooter, maliciously prosecuted him, and failed to turn over exculpatory evidence.
     Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker praised the ruling.
     “Mr. Ross’s experience is tragic, as evidenced by the Alameda County Superior Court’s overturning of his conviction for attempted murder and release. However, Federal Magistrate James affirmed that the City of Oakland is not responsible for the violations he asserts,” Parker said.
     She said the judge “specifically found that Officer Lovell’s investigation and other actions did not prejudice Mr. Ross at his criminal trial, nor did the city’s policies and procedures or city officials’ actions cause his injuries.”
     Ross was exonerated in February 2013 for the 2006 shooting of Renardo Williams. He was serving 32 years to life.
     Ross said he was convicted because of a faulty photo lineup and police coercion. He claimed that Williams, the victim, told Lovell that none of the suspects in the photo lineup had shot him, but Lovell silently indicated that Williams should identify Ross.
     Williams later signed a declaration under penalty of perjury that he told Lovell he picked Ross because he felt he owed Lovell a favor.
     After this declaration was submitted to court, with other exculpatory evidence, Ross’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison.
     The city said that Williams subsequently renounced his statements about being coerced and in a more recent interview with the Alameda County’s District Attorney’s Office stated that he still believed Ross to be the shooter.
     Ross acknowledged he was unable to find Williams to testify at trial or to provide additional evidence for the summary judgment stage, Judge James said.
     She found that Williams’ declaration would not be admissible in a civil trial against Lovell and the city, as many portions of the document lack foundation.
     “There is no description about how Williams knew Lovell allegedly wanted him to identify Ross’s photo other than the statement that Lovell ‘silently indicated’ this to Williams. From the description in Williams’s declaration, there is no evidence that Lovell made any actual verbal communications or gesture or other motion, and for all the court can deduce from this declaration, Williams might be saying that Lovell telepathically sent him this message,” James wrote.
     Without knowing why Williams believed that Lovell wanted him to pick Ross, the court cannot appropriately put this evidence before a jury, the judge said.
     “The same is true for Williams’s statement that he identified Ross because he owed Lovell a favor – there is no foundation for Williams’s and Lovell’s pre-existing relationship or why Williams believed he owed Lovell a favor,” James ruled.
     Williams’s declaration is hearsay, not covered by an exception to the hearsay rule based on the reasoning that his statements were so contrary to his own interests that he would not have made them unless they were true, James found.
     By making the statements indicating that Lovell induced him to lie about Ross being the shooter, Williams “might well have thought he was saving himself from blame rather than putting himself at any risk of criminal liability. In a sense, accusing Lovell of misconduct appears to excuse Williams’s false testimony,” James wrote.
     Because the statements lack foundation and the city has never had the opportunity to cross-examine Williams, the declaration is not admissible at trial and cannot be considered at summary judgment, the judge said.
     Without the Williams declaration, Ross has no evidence to show there was a genuine dispute to put forth to a jury on his malicious prosecution claim against Lovell.
     Ross does not dispute that Alameda County prosecutors independently reviewed the evidence and investigated the case themselves before determining that it could move forward, nor does he dispute prosecutors’ assertion that Lovell never pressured them to prosecute Ross.
     “Furthermore, the evidence presented indicates that Lovell disclosed potentially contradictory evidence to prosecutors, including writing in his police report that Williams had told him the shooter was bald, despite Ross’s picture from the lineup showing him with hair,” James ruled.
     “This indicates that Lovell did not manipulate the evidence before the prosecutors but actually exposed a basis for which the prosecutors might have questioned Williams’s identification of Ross as the shooter,” the judge added.
     Because Ross cannot show that Lovell’s actions caused him injury, he cannot allege that any constitutional deprivation was the product of any city policy, so the city is also entitled to summary judgment, James said.
     City Attorney Parker credited Supervising Deputy City Attorney David Pereda with “skillful and sensitive crafting of the city’s motion and oral argument.”
     Ross’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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