Wednesday, May 13, 2015
The Seventh Circuit ruled in Armstrong v. Daily that a prosecutor and two crime lab technicians were not entitled to qualified immunity after they bungled an investigation that resulted in a faulty trial and foiled the plaintiff's attempts to demonstrate his innocence. In all, this top-to-bottom outrageous investigation put a wrongfully convicted plaintiff behind bars for 29 years.
Ralph Armstrong brought the civil rights case against prosecutor John Norsetter and state lab technicians Karen Daily and Daniel Campbell. Armstrong was convicted of rape and murder in 1981 and sentenced to life plus 16 years. The prosecution had two key pieces of physical evidence against him: drug paraphernalia found at the crime scene that could have shown who was in the victim's apartment the evening she was murdered; and a bathrobe belt used as the murder weapon.
The drug paraphernalia was never examined; instead, it was tossed in a trash bag, left in an office storage locker at the police station, and eventually lost. The bathrobe belt was tested crudely for DNA in 1980, which didn't rule out Armstrong. (The prosecution also relied on the identification by an eyewitness who Norsetter had hypnotized. Armstrong challenged this evidence in a prior case, where he lost his habeas claim at the Seventh Circuit.)
Armstrong later presented new DNA testing definitively excluding him and, in 2005, won a new trial through the state courts. A state court also ordered the prosecution to inform the defense of future DNA tests and to allow the defense to be present for any handling of the evidence. Armstrong stayed in prison.
Norsetter then ordered new testing of the belt, without telling Armstrong (despite the court order). Daily and Campbell conducted testing that consumed the entire DNA sample from the belt. The results could not confirm or eliminate Armstrong as the source, because the test they used could not distinguish between men with the same father. (This is important, because Armstrong's brother, who died in 2005, earlier confessed to the crime.) Norsetter never disclosed to Armstrong or the technicians that Armstrong's brother might be a suspect.
After Armstrong's attorneys learned that the prosecution's secret testing destroyed the evidence, they moved to dismiss charges against him. The court found that the prosecution acted in bad faith and dismissed the charges because the destruction of that evidence had irreparably compromised his right to a fair trail. Armstrong remained in prison for the three years between the destruction of the evidence in 2006 and the court's dismissal in 2009.
Armstrong then sued Norsetter, Daily, and Campbell, arguing that they violated his civil rights. Norsetter claimed absolute immunity as a prosecutor for the destruction of DNA evidence and qualified immunity for the destruction of the drug paraphernalia; Daily and Campbell claimed qualified immunity. The district court denied these claims, except as to Norsetter's involvement in the destruction of DNA evidence.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed. As to Norsetter, it ruled that Norsetter did not enjoy absolute immunity for his investigatory acts, and that he did not enjoy qualified immunity because he acted in bad faith in allowing the destruction of the drug paraphernalia and DNA sample. As to Daily and Campbell, the court said that
we must assume that Daily and Campbell's actions caused Armstrong to suffer a loss of liberty as he languished in prison for three more years after Daily said he was excluded by the earlier DNA tests and after the last sample had been destroyed in the [later] test of the newly discovered stain.
The court rejected the defendant's arguments that a state tort action could have provided Armstrong a remedy sufficient to satisfy federal due process under Parratt v. Taylor. In a lengthy discussion, the court said that the argument was based on a fundamental mis-reading of Parratt. In short:
When Parratt and its progeny are read carefully, then, and are read against the broader sweep of due process jurisprudence, they do not bar Armstrong's claims based on deprivation of his liberty through deliberate destruction of exculpatory evidence. More specifically, Parratt does not bar Armstrong's claims because the defendants' conduct was not "random and unauthorized" and the available state remedies are not adequate.
The court recognized "some disagreement among the courts about the conditions for obtaining a civil remedy for destruction of exculpatory evidence, those disagreements do not support a qualified immunity defense."
Judge Flaum argued that Norsetter should get qualified immunity, because his destruction of the drug paraphernalia was negligent, not "in bad faith."