Friday, May 15, 2015

Convicted felon wins due process appeal from parole rescission

This case is a fascinating one because it involves a convicted murderer who sued state parole officials who allegedly conspired to rescind a parole board decision to grant him parole. The case was dismissed on summary judgment, but the Court of Appeals revives plaintiff's due process claim.

The case is Victory v. Pataki, a summary order decided on April 17. At eight single-spaced pages, this is one of the longest summary orders in years. Plaintiff is not a sympathetic character. He was convicted of felony murder in the death of a police officer in 1970, and in 1978 he escaped from jail and remained at large before they found him and threw him back into jail. He's been a model inmate since 1981. He was granted parole in March 1999, but before plaintiff was able to leave prison, a series of phone calls took place between Governor Pataki's office and Board of Parole people in Albany. This led to a parole rescission hearing that month, which resulted in ... rescission. No parole for Victory. The Board of Parole then reversed that decision because the rescission ruling was procedurally flawed, ordering a new hearing that never happened because a state court next granted plaintiff's habeas corpus petition, which the Appellate Division then reversed while ordering a new hearing. That new hearing never happened, either, because plaintiff was reincarcerated for violating parole conditions. Some further court activity led to plaintiff's freedom again. Meanwhile, he sued state officials, including Pataki, for the parole rescission.

Got all that? The beauty of the court system is that even someone like Victory can get a fair shake despite his background. As governor, Pataki had made an issue about denying parole to guys like this, but that did not become law. No politician was ever taken to the woodshed for being tough on crime. Anyway, the Second Circuit (Pooler and Parker [Wesley recused himself]) reverses summary judgment on the due process claim, finding that the district court did not view the evidence in the light most favorable to Victory. It boils down to those communications among Parole Board and Governor's office people right after Victory won parole. The Second Circuit finds evidence of a conspiracy, one of the hardest ways to win a civil rights case. Here is how the Court of Appeals sees it:

[A]t no point did the district court address the phone records corroborating Victory’s contention that the conversations allegedly identifying Victory’s escape as a basis for rescission preceded Graber’s own purported realization that he had overlooked the escape. Whereas the State Defendants asserted that Graber first became aware of Victory’s escape on January 13, 1999, during a phone conversation between Graber, Tracy, and Grant, Victory pointed to phone records indicating that this call could not have occurred until January 14, 1999, the day after admissible evidence suggests that Lapp was already soliciting letters emphasizing the escape. As the district court at one point acknowledged, Victory raised a genuine dispute as to whether Graber lied about his awareness of the escape to the rescission panel. Considering these facts in conjunction with the State Defendants’ inconsistent testimony regarding the chain of events preceding the rescission hearing, a reasonable juror could conclude that there was an agreement among those defendants who prematurely set in motion rescission procedures with this allegedly false pretext in mind. These “inference[s] of impropriety” distinguish Victory’s conspiracy allegations from those that we have dismissed on the basis that they are supported only by “unsubstantiated speculation” with no evidence “to suggest anything untoward took place.”

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