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Wrongly Convicted Man Loses Case Against Cops

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - A man wrongly convicted of a robbery who spent nearly twelve years in prison cannot pursue due process claims against the police officers who charged him, the Fourth Circuit ruled.

Shawn Massey sued J.J. Ojaniit, Gerald Esposito and Tom Ledford - all Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers - in September 2011, just over a year after being released from prison.

Massey served a nearly 12-year prison sentence beginning in 1999 after being convicted of breaking and entering, kidnapping and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

The charges stemmed from an incident in which an assailant attempted to rape Samantha Wood at her apartment building and then held Wood and her two children at gunpoint before taking $60 from her purse and threatening to kill her if she called police.

Despite the threat, Wood called police and described her attacker as a short black man with "his hair pulled back from his face and small braids on the back of his head."

Upon interviewing another tenant in Wood's apartment complex, Officer Esposito discovered that Massey matched the description given by Wood and had spent the previous night in the building.

Massey was arrested after Wood identified him in a photo lineup as "'looking the most like her assailant," although Officer Ojaniit changed his report to read that Wood said "looked like" instead of "looking the most like."

Massey's trial began in September 1999, and even though eyewitness testimonies in the trial included several discrepancies - most notably the clothes and hairstyle of Wood's assailant - and Officer Esposito admitted that he altered Wood's statement about the photo lineup, a jury convicted Massey of all five charges.

Massey was eventually released when the Wrongful Conviction Center at Duke University looked into his case and discovered that, based on photographic evidence, he could not have grown his hair long enough to have the braids described by Wood.

Affidavits from professional barbers, coupled with the revelation that Wood had expressed doubt over whether Massey was the man who attacked her just before the trial began led the Center to present its case to the District Attorney of Mecklenburg County in May 2010.

The prosecutor moved to set aside the convictions after determining a jury would have reasonable doubt as to whether Massey committed the crimes, and the court struck the verdicts and released Massey on May 5, 2010.

Massey's 2011 lawsuit claimed the officers violated his due process rights by fabricating evidence - most importantly, the police reports that described Wood's assailant and the doctored lineup identification - that led to his eventual conviction and incarceration.

In a preliminary report, a magistrate judge dismissed the claims against Officer Ledford but allowed the proceedings to continue against the remaining two officers.

Ojaniit and Esposito objected, however, and the district court eventually dismissed all of Massey's claims after concluding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

A Fourth Circuit panel consisting of Circuit Judges Diana Gribbon Motz, Robert B. King and Stephanie D. Thacker denied Massey's appeal and upheld the granting of immunity to the officers.

Massey claims the district court erred by relying heavily on the transcript from his trial, which "is 'neither a 'fact,' nor [is] it construed in the light most favorable to [him].'"

Judge King and the panel dismissed his argument, however, writing that "the court refrained from deciding any issue of the 1999 trial and 'form[ed] no judgment as to the credibility of any witnesses," while also noting that "Massey does not dispute the accuracy or authenticity of the transcript; rather, he extensively quotes from it in his complaint."

In examining the merit of Massey's lawsuit, the panel noted that "fabrication of evidence alone is insufficient to state a claim for a due process violation; a plaintiff must plead adequate facts to establish that the loss of liberty - i.e., his conviction and subsequent incarceration - resulted from the fabrication."

Ultimately, the panel agreed with the district court and ruled that Massey failed to meet this obligation.

Despite admitting that Officer Esposito falsified his report concerning Massey's hair, the panel refused to accept Massey's argument "that 'if [he] did not wear his hair in cornrows on May 22, 1998, he could not have been the armed black man who robbed and kidnapped Ms. Wood and her children.'"

Quoting the district court's original decision, Judge King writes:

"[Massey] raises to the level of certainty that the crime could only have been committed by a person with braids. This is an overstatement of an otherwise valid argument. That an eyewitness described an assailant as having braids does not, by operation of nature or law, exonerate all suspects who do not have braids; it merely calls into question that aspect of the description as applied against anyone not wearing braids."

The panel writes: "Simply put, the central issue at trial was not whether Massey had cornrows or any other type of braids. Rather, the prosecution's case focused on the positive in-court identifications ... as well as ... testimony contradicting Massey's alibi and placing him at the apartment complex the morning of the crimes."

It concluded: "It is not plausible that Officer Esposito could have anticipated that, by falsely stating that [the eyewitness] told him Massey wore braids, Massey not only would be included in the photographic lineup, but also would be identified by two witnesses (including the victim) - both by photo and in person at trial."

Massey's arguments to revive his malicious prosecution and unreasonable seizure claims also fell on deaf ears, as the panel quoted the district court yet again in affirming its dismissal.

"'Ultimately, it is a 'fair probability' that a suspect has committed a crime where the victim identifies the suspect out of [a] six person photo lineup, a second person independently identifies him (from the same six person lineup) as having been near the scene of the crime during the relevant period, and a third confirms his identity and relates that she saw him in the vicinity of the crime area several hours earlier. The discrepancies between the description[s by the witnesses] ... though relevant, do not rise to the level to defeat probable cause.'"

Massey also attempted to revive his claims against Officer Ledford, but the panel quickly nullified his argument, citing the 1995 Supreme Court case Thomas v. Arn and Massey's failure to object to the magistrate's initial report:

"There, the court held that 'a court of appeals may exercise its supervisory powers to establish a rule that the failure to file objections to the magistrate's report waives the right to appeal the district court's judgment.' Thomas, 474 U.S. at 142."

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