(CN) — A 10th Circuit panel sided with a federal judge Tuesday in finding four Kansas police officers shouldn't be given qualified immunity in a lawsuit filed by a man who was wrongfully convicted of killing his wife's sister.
In 1999, Floyd Bledsoe, a 23-year-old farmhand, was living in Jefferson County, Kansas, with his wife Heidi, their two young sons and Heidi's 14-year-old sister Camille Arfmann. Bledsoe's 25-year-old brother, Tom, lived close by. Tom was "partially deaf" and had "certain intellectual limitations," according to the lawsuit Floyd Bledsoe would later file, as well as a "history of troubling sexual behavior that included pursuing young girls."
On Nov. 5, 1999, Camille went missing. Two days later, according to Bledsoe's lawsuit, Tom told both his Sunday school teacher and his parents that he had killed her. Tom's parents hired an attorney, Michael Hayes, who took Tom to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department that same day. Tom told investigators how he killed Camille and where her body could be found. Hayes turned over the murder weapon — a recently purchased 9 mm handgun. Tom was arrested and charged with homicide.
But Tom would soon change his story, recanting his confession and accusing his brother of the murder. Floyd Bledsoe's suit accuses the homicide investigators of coaching Tom through his recantation, of falsifying the results of polygraph tests, of withholding evidence of Tom's guilt from Floyd's defense attorney. Officers also “purposefully declined to subject Tom’s home — or even his room or clothing — to any rigorous forensic examination,” and “declined to collect any physical evidence from the vehicles Tom drove,” including the truck where the murder was said to have taken place.
Just why the prosecutor, defense attorney, and investigators would frame Floyd for a murder that his disabled brother committed is unclear. The second amended complaint suggested that Jim Vanderbilt, the prosecutor, was indebted to Hayes, the defense attorney, for helping Vanderbilt avoid "legal exposure for Vanderbilt's appropriation of county funds for personal use."
A jury convicted Floyd Bledsoe of murder, kidnapping and "taking indecent liberties with a child." A judge sentenced him to life in prison. Later, an appeal was denied.
Floyd served 16 years in prison before newly available DNA testing established that "semen found in Camille's body likely matched Tom's DNA; it was conclusively not a match for Bledsoe," according to Floyd's complaint. Shortly after this revelation, Tom took his own life. He left behind a number of notes, one of which read: "I sent an innocent man to prison. The Jefferson County police and county attorney Jim Vanderbelt made me do it. I was told by Vanderbelt to keep my mouth shut. Now I am going to set thing right.
"I killed Camille Arfmann on Nov. 5, 1999. I had sex with her and killed her. … I drove up to the ditch where the family dump trash and tried to convince her not to tell. … I went to my truck and got my 9mm gun that was behind my seat and pushed her to the ground to try to scare her, but it failed with the gun went off behind her head. … I as well might go ahead and say it I raped and murdered a 14 year girl. I tried telling the truth but no one would listen. I was told to keep my mouth shut. It tore me up doing it. I would ask for forgiveness, but I know none will come. Not even from God.
"Floyd S Bledsoe is innocent man.
"Tom E Bledsoe is the guilty one."
In 2016, Floyd Bledsoe filed a lawsuit against Vanderbilt, Hayes, Sheriff Roy Dunnaway, then-undersheriff Jeffrey Herrig, and a number of sheriff's deputies who investigated the case. Herrig and three investigators — Randy Carreno, Troy Frost and Robert Poppa — asked the court to dismiss the claims against them on the grounds of qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects government officials from civil liability when their conduct "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." A federal judge denied that request.
On appeal at the 10th Circuit in September 2021, the county's attorney Eric Turner told the three-judge panel during oral arguments the officers were doing their job based on the information they had at the time. But Floyd's attorney Ruth Brown urged the panel to reject that argument.
"What we have is homicide investigators who know their colleagues were fabricating evidence and withholding exculpatory evidence," Brown told the panel.
On Tuesday, more than a year after oral arguments, the panel rejected the officers' appeal. "Appellants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity because, at most, they were mistaken in believing Bledsoe was guilty of Camille’s rape and murder, and their investigation was at most negligent. Those arguments mischaracterize Bledsoe’s allegations," U.S. Circuit Judge David Ebel, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote for the panel. "Bledsoe alleges that defendants fabricated false evidence against him, knowingly suppressed exculpatory evidence that would have proven his innocence, and facilitated his arrest, pretrial detention and trial without probable cause to believe he was guilty.
"None of those alleged actions, by definition, can be done mistakenly or 'innocently.'"
The panel overturned one small aspect of the lower court's ruling, granting the four defendants qualified immunity on Bledsoe's "failure-to-intervene" claim, on the argument that that claim was not clearly established in 1999.
U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Jerome Holmes, a George W. Bush appointee and U.S. Circuit Judge Allison Eid, a Donald Trump appointee, rounded out the panel. In a partial concurrence, Eid wrote that she agreed with the other judges in the result of the ruling, but thought they reached their decision on "broader grounds than are necessary."
The case now moves back to the lower court for trial. Neither Brown nor Turner responded to emails and phone calls requesting a comment.
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