DENVER (CN) – A man who served 17 years of a life sentence before being exonerated lobbied the 10th Circuit on Tuesday to revive his negligence claims against the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, over what he says are policies that cost him nearly two decades of his life.
Attorneys for Tulsa argue Matthew Parker lacks evidence to prove that its policies caused widespread negligence in criminal investigations.
In 1997, Parker was convicted of sexually abusing a 7-year-old girl being babysat by his fiancée and was sentenced to life in prison. A criminal appeals court overturned Parker’s conviction in 2015 for ineffective assistance, and he’s since received a certificate of innocence – making him eligible for up to $175,000 in compensation from Oklahoma.
In his complaint against Tulsa, Parker claims Detective Rex Berry of the Tulsa Police Department “engaged in a terrifyingly results-oriented investigation, shoe-horning, magnifying, and bolstering the complaining witness’s story.”
Parker says Berry ignored vital exculpatory evidence, including the victim’s inaccurate description of a mole on his penis and the logistical improbability of Parker leaving his workplace to go home to molest the victim.
He also accuses the social worker who investigated the incident of misleading the child during questioning by “suggesting the answers to the complaining witness … (and) questions that assumed the existence of sexual abuse.”
Parker says no physical evidence was presented during his trial and that the state withdrew an offer to let him take a polygraph test.
Tulsa City Attorney Michelle McGrew told the 10th Circuit panel on Tuesday that since the city had no written policy and therefore Parker couldn’t prove a widespread practice of ignoring exculpatory evidence in investigations.
“The evidence of prior unsubstantiated claims of abuse was fiction,” McGrew said, referring to Parker’s claim that Berry ignored two other instances where the child had wrongfully accused men of sexual abuse, including her grandfather.
McGrew said the case was investigated by a detective with 23 years of experience who also trained other government employees to investigate sex abuse.
“The facts in this case are that this little girl made consistent, credible allegations and an interdisciplinary investigation backed her up,” McGrew said, adding the city had no reason to suspect there were issues with either the investigation or police training.
Additionally, McGrew said, a single claim of a constitutional violation does not prove the city made a policy of violating civil rights.
Circuit Judge Nancy Moritz asked Parker’s attorney Fred Lynn for evidence that Parker’s case was part of a larger widespread practice supported by the city.
Detective Berry claimed he was adhering to city policies, yet he overlooked exculpatory evidence, Lynn answered. And while Tulsa aimed to dismiss Berry’s actions as a single instance, Lynn said it only takes one unconstitutional policy to guide the police department toward making mistakes.
In his complaint against the city, Parker suggested that the girl may have been angry because she was banned from being a flower girl in his wedding. Tulsa World reported the purported victim, now nearly 30, has not retracted her claims but has no desire to be involved with the ongoing proceedings and has moved on with her life.
Circuit Judges Michael Murphy and Allison Eid also sat on the panel.