Split 9th Circuit Renews False Confession Claims

     (CN)- The 9th Circuit on Monday renewed the false-confession claims of a man who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
     Citing extraordinary circumstances, the federal appeals court in Pasadena allowed Harold Hall to amend a seven-year-old complaint for damages to include a Fifth Amendment coerced confession claim.
     Hall was convicted in Los Angeles in 1985 for the murders of Nola Duncan and David Rainey, when he was just 18. Nearly two decades later, the 9th Circuit found that a jailhouse snitch had falsified evidence in the case, and the state of California declined to retry Hall. He was released from prison in 2004 and now works for the Los Angeles County Bar Association coordinating the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments Program.
     Hall, who had previously testified as a witness in a drive-by shooting against a dangerous gang member and was in jail at the time on a burglary charge, came to detectives’ attention as a suspect in the Duncan-Rainey murders after fellow prisoners said he’d confessed to crimes in conversations. Many years later, one of the informants admitted that he had concocted the story, according to the court. At the time, however, the detectives believed the snitch, and they interrogated Hall for six hours straight, denying him food, failing to advise him of his Miranda rights, “spoon feeding” him a false confession and ignoring his pleas for a lawyer. The detectives also told Hall that they could no longer protect him from the gang member against whom he had testified if he did not admit to the crimes.
     Soon after his release, Hall sued the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department and several police officers. In his initial complaint, he alleged that the defendants had violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they used false evidence against him. Two years later, Hall unsuccessfully moved to amend the complaint to include a Fifth Amendment, coerced confession claim. A District Court eventually granted summary judgement to the city, finding that Hall’s unamended complaint had not raised triable issues of fact to support his fabrication-of-evidence claim.
     In a rare sua sponte ruling, a split panel of 9th Circuit judges on Monday reversed the lower court’s denial of Hall’s motion to amend his complaint, allowing him to cure the oversight that had doomed his case in the first place.
     “An ordinary case in which counsel neglected to allege an obvious claim in a pleading would not warrant sua sponte consideration of an issue, nor would we feel compelled to find an abuse of discretion,”
     wrote Judge Dorothy Nelson. “But we are not called to consider an ordinary case, but, rather, an extraordinary one involving an unfortunate confluence of events-events not fit for a just and fair society. We are reminded today that as jurists we hold the power to protect individuals against arbitrary government action and abuse of power.”
     “We cannot escape the fact that justice eluded Hall during his highly suspect, and constitutionally questionable, interrogation,” she added.
     “Justice eluded Hall when he suffered a conviction based on that confession and the patently false inculpatory evidence created by a jailhouse informant. Justice eluded Hall when he served nineteen years in state prison for a crime he did not commit. And justice will elude Hall yet again without the opportunity to amend his complaint and let a jury decide whether he deserves monetary compensation for his unlawful incarceration. If ever there were an exceptional case where we should exercise our discretionary power to avoid manifest injustice, we believe this must be it.”
     Writing in dissent, Judge Sandra Ikuta argued that the majority had overstepped the boundaries of judicial power.
     “The majority disregards the most basic principles of judicial restraint, erroneously overturns a district court decision that we have no jurisdiction to review, and gives Hall relief that he never asked us to give,” she wrote. “While the majority claims that these imprudent steps are necessary to ‘safeguard the fairness, integrity and reputation of our courts,’ I fear that they will have the exact opposite effect.”

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