Monday, February 4, 2019

Court of Appeals reinstates claim that detectives falsified evidence in homicide case

This complicated Section 1983 case alleges that New York City detectives fabricated evidence that resulted in a murder conviction (for which the defendant was eventually exonerated halfway through his sentence when the police determined that someone else committed the homicide). The Court of Appeals reinstates the lawsuit, finding a jury may conclude the detectives did in fact falsify evidence, and that other prosecutorial misconduct denied the plaintiff a fair trial.

The case is Bellamy v. City of New York, issued on January 29. The victim was stabbed outside a grocery store in Queens. Bellamy was picked up for the killing, and the detectives produced two pieces of evidence at the criminal trial that implicated Bellamy: (1) an admission from Bellamy that this was a case of mistaken identity and that someone must have falsely accused him of murder and (2) an eye-witness statement that says Bellamy got into a fight with the victim on the day of the murder. The first evidentiary submission was significant because no one said anything to Bellamy about a murder when he allegedly blurted out that he did not kill anyone. The second evidentiary submission is significant because eyewitness statements like this are always useful for the prosecution.

We have an issue of fact for the jury in Bellamy's civil rights case on these alleged evidentiary fabrications. Bellamy swears he never made that admission, and the woman who purportedly made that eyewitness statement swears she never said it, either. This kind of he-said she-said factual dispute will get you a trial in the typical Section 1983 case, and it gets Bellamy a trial in this case, even though it involves a homicide. While the district court said Bellamy's denial was self-serving and not substantiated by any direct evidence, the law is that "self-serving" but sworn testimony is enough to create a factual dispute so long as the testimony is not contradictory and incomplete. The case for that proposition is Rentas v. Ruffin, 816 F.3d 214 (2d Cir. 2016).

The Court (Walker and Shea [D.J.], over Judge Jacobs' dissent) also reinstates Bellamy's civil case against the detectives because he adequately alleges the police withheld evidence that would have helped Bellamy's criminal defense. While the victim was killed on a Saturday, one eyewitness told the detectives that she saw Bellamy on a Sunday, when he was trying to buy beer before noon (you could not buy beer on Sunday mornings). The detectives did not turn over this statement to the prosecution. While the detectives claim this witness said no such thing, the witness herself said that she did. As Bellamy's guilt was a close call, this factual dispute could have a made a difference at the criminal trial. The jury in Bellamy's Section 1983 case must determine if the detectives failed to turn over this exculpatory evidence.

We have other allegations that a jury must also consider in determining if the detectives failed to turn over relevant evidence. Bellamy has evidence that one eyewitness said Bellamy was with someone else, Lee, on the day of the killing. That witness denies making that statement. This is relevant because there was no suspicion that Lee had anything to do with the murder. This is a close question, but it goes to the jury.

Finally, Bellamy has a Monell claim against the City, claiming municipal liability over its policy of failing to disclose the relocation benefits that one eyewitness would receive if he testified at the criminal trial. A Monell claim also arises from the prosecutor's improper summation. The Court holds that the actions of county prosecutors in New York  are generally controlled by municipal policymakers for purposes of Monell, which says you cannot sue sue a municipality unless a municipal policy led to the violation of your constitutional rights. So what happened here was the result of municipal and not state policy, even though the DA's office says that alleged DA "misconduct" is a state function. As for non disclosing the relocation benefits, the jury could find the eyewitness was promised relocation and related benefits in return for testifying. These benefits were sufficiently lucrative for the witness that the jury could have taken them into account in assessing the witness's credibility. As for the ADA's summation, Monell liability may attach because the ADA was not disciplined by his superiors for telling the jury that he personally knew who committed the murder. The ADA also said that Bellamy was not going to get away with the murder, "not this time." This suggests Bellamy has killed others and gotten away with it. This and other problems with the summation fuel Bellamy's Monell claim, particularly since the trial evidence did not exactly point to Bellamy's guilt, and the DA's office had major misgivings about the quality of its case in any event.

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