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Kansas cops fight for qualified immunity in suit over wrongful murder conviction

Floyd Bledsoe served 15 years for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann, a crime actually committed by his brother.

(CN) — Four former members of the Jefferson County, Kansas, sheriff’s office lobbied the 10th Circuit for qualified immunity from a civil lawsuit filed by the man their investigation implicated for the 1999 murder of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann, a crime actually committed by his brother.

Floyd Bledsoe was released from prison in 2015 after DNA evidence proved his brother Tom had raped and killed the 14-year-old sister of Floyd's wife Heidi.

Tom was partially deaf and had intellectual limitations. After Arfmann went missing, he left messages on his Sunday school teacher’s answering machine confessing to the crime and led police to her body in a trash dump.

When a polygraph test suggested Tom had falsely confessed, law enforcement instead turned their attention to Floyd. A jury convicted Floyd of Arfmann’s murder and he was sentenced to life in prison plus 16 years.

When evidence cleared Floyd a decade later and revealed his brother as the murderer, Tom wrote a note once again confessing to the crime and took his own life.

Floyd sued the county and law enforcement in May 2016, claiming they intentionally hid evidence supporting his innocence, including multiple confessions from his brother.

In November 2020, a federal judge denied qualified immunity to Jeffrey Herrig, the undersheriff of Jefferson County at the time, as well as investigators Robert Poppa and Troy Frost and lead detective Randy Carreno. The men appealed to the 10th Circuit claiming Bledsoe accused them all of generalized claims and failed to establish who did what.

“The district court said the collective references to the officers do not establish who did what, but the district court did not dismiss the claims against any of these officers,” attorney Eric Turner of the Wichita firm Foulston Siefkin, arguing on behalf of Jefferson County, told the panel Monday. “These officers were just doing their job based on the information they had at the time.”

U.S. Circuit judge Jerome Holmes, appointed by George W. Bush, challenged Turner’s attempt to separate conspiracy counts from substantive counts.

“There is a conspiracy allegation as relates to the fabrication of Tom’s statement and the alleged law enforcement defendants, and they talk about the fabrication, why isn’t it a fair implication that they included Herrig in addition to everyone else?” asked Judge Holmes.

Floyd Bledsoe's attorney Ruth Brown told the panel the defense had changed their argument when their first one failed.

“What the defendants are asking this court to do is set an appellant procedure where the defendants need only utter the two words 'qualified immunity' and the district court has to go out and affirmatively anticipate and respond to every conceivable qualified immunity argument,” said Brown who practices for the Chicago firm Loevy & Loevy.

Holmes corrected Brown and said the district court had no burden of proof.

“It’s the plaintiff’s burden, your burden,” Holmes said.

Brown homed in her argument on the failure of Jefferson County law enforcement.

“The fundamental issue here is that no reasonable homicide investigator would think that it was reasonable to stand by and do nothing,” Brown said. “This is not an on the spot decision where a police officer has to make a quick call. What we have is homicide investigators who know their colleagues were fabricating evidence and withholding exculpatory evidence.”

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge David Ebel, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and Donald Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Allison Eid rounded out the panel, which did not indicate when or how they would decide the case. Monday's proceedings were conducted remotely and broadcast on YouTube.

For more follow Courthouse News and Amanda Pampuro on Twitter.

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