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Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 29, 2016

JAMES OWENS, Plaintiff,


          George L. Russell, III United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants', Gary Dunnigan, Jay Landsman, Thomas Pellegrini's (collectively, “the Officers”) Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 159), Defendant Marvin Brave's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 157), and Defendant Baltimore City Police Department's (“BCPD”) Motion to Strike (ECF No. 171) and Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 158). The Motions are ripe for disposition. Having reviewed the Motions and supporting documents, the Court finds no hearing necessary pursuant to Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will deny the Officers' Motion, grant Brave's Motion, and grant BCPD's Motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action arises from the investigation and prosecution of Plaintiff James Owens for the 1987 murder of Colleen Williar. On August 2, 1987, Williar was raped, robbed, and murdered in the second-floor bedroom of her apartment in Baltimore, Maryland. Defendant BCPD Detective Pellegrini was assigned to the case, Sergeant Landsman oversaw him, and Detective Dunnigan assisted as needed.

         On August 3, 1987, Pelligrini went to the crime scene and one of Williar's neighbors, James Thompson, approached him. Thompson told Pelligrini that he found a bloody knife lying in the grass across the street from Williar's apartment the night of August 2, 1987. Thompson said he put the knife in the back pocket of his shorts, took it home, and cleaned it off. Thompson presented Pelligrini with the knife and shorts.

         On August 5, 1987, Thompson gave a formal statement to a BCPD detective. Thompson stated that he purchased the knife four months prior while Owens was present and that Owens stole the knife before Williar's murder. Thompson further stated that on the morning of August 3, 1987, Owens came to Thompson's home and told Thompson that he dropped the knife in a neighbor's yard and had sex with Williar. Also on August 5, 1987, Owens gave a formal statement to the police stating he had no knowledge of Williar's murder and denied entering her home. Owens was then arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

         Beginning on February 23, 1988, Defendant Marvin Brave, the Assistant State's Attorney responsible for prosecuting Owens's case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Maryland, presented several witnesses, none of whom saw Owens commit the murder. One witness testified that Owens worked the morning of August 3, 1987. Another witness, Larry Oliver, Brave's jailhouse informant, testified that Owens admitted to attacking and murdering Williar.[2] On February 26, 1988, Brave met with Thompson to discuss his trial testimony because he found Thompson was his key witness and he found Thompson's story to be implausible. During the meeting, Brave assured Thompson that he would not be prosecuted for making a false statement. Thompson then changed his story, stating that he did not find the knife in his neighbor's yard, but Owens returned the stolen knife to him on the morning of August 3, 1987. Thompson later testified to the same during Owens's trial.

         During Thompson's testimony, Dunnigan realized that Thompson was lying because Owens worked the morning of August 3, 1987 and, therefore, could not have been at Thompson's home handing over a knife. Dunnigan informed Brave of this inconsistency. Over the weekend after Thompson testified, Brave contacted Pelligrini on a Sunday night to discuss the pubic hairs found on Williar's body that were not a match to Owens. Due to Thompson's apparent inaccurate testimony during trial, Brave realized that Thompson was not eliminated as a suspect because he never considered Thompson to be possible suspect. To obtain evidence negating Thompson's involvement and to boost his credibility, Brave told Pelligrini to have Thompson's pubic hair and blood tested.

         On the following Monday, February 29, 1988, during a break in trial, Brave, Pelligrini, and Dunnigan met with Mark Profili, the BCPD technician who completed the hair analysis. Profili stated that he believed the hair found on Williar may have matched Thompson's hair and the saliva found on a cigarette at the crime scene matched Thompson's blood type. Pelligrini called Thompson and requested that he return to the courthouse for another interview.

         During the interview, Landsman advised Thompson of his Miranda rights and told him that his hair and blood was found in Williar's home. Thompson then stated he was in Williar's house with Owens on August 2, 1987, but only remained on the first floor. The Officers then told him that his hair was found on the second floor. Thompson then stated he was on the second floor, Owens went into Williar's bedroom, and Thompson stood on the stairs. Thompson further stated he heard a woman pull up towards the home in a car and when she came inside, he hid in the bathroom. Owens attacked her and Thompson ran out of the house. The Officer then told Thompson that his pubic hairs were found on Williar's buttocks, which implied that his pants were down. Thompson then stated he entered the bedroom and masturbated over her body while Owens attacked Williar. At that point, the Officers decided to stop questioning Thompson and take a full written statement from him.

         Landsman walked to the courtroom and passed a note to Brave indicating that Thompson confessed to burglarizing Williar's house with Owens. There is a dispute, however, regarding whether the Officers told Brave about the multiple stories Thompson told leading to his final confession.[3] Brave approached the bench with Owens's defense counsel, David Eaton, and read Landsman's note. Before the Officers could get a written statement from Thompson, Brave called him back to testify. On the stand, Thompson testified about the final version of his story. Owens was ultimately convicted of felony-murder and burglary and sentenced to life imprisonment.

         In 2006, Owens filed a post-conviction petition for DNA testing in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Through DNA evidence, Owens showed that neither he nor Thompson matches for either the blood or semen found at the crime scene. Through an agreement between counsel and the court, the court granted Owens a new trial on June 7, 2007. On October 15, 2008, the Maryland State's Attorney's Office entered nolle prosequi and released Owens from detention.

         On October 12, 2011, Owens filed the instant case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, alleging violations of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (ECF No. 1). On November 16, 2011, BCPD removed the matter to this Court under federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (Id.). On December 9, 2015, Owens filed a Second Amended Complaint against the Officers, Brave, and BCPD. (ECF No. 147). On December 23, 2015, Brave and BCPD each filed a separate Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 157, 158), and on December 28, 2015, the Officers filed an Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 159). On February 12 and 13, 2016, Owens filed Responses to the Motions. (ECF Nos. 163-165). On March 21, 2016, Brave filed a Reply to Owens's Response. (ECF No. 170). On April 4, 2016, the Officers and BCPD each filed a Reply to Owens's Responses. (ECF No. 173).


         A. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the Court must grant summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citing Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the opposing party has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). If the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case where she has the burden of proof, “there can be ‘no genuine [dispute] as to any material fact, ' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48. A “material fact” is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Id. at 248; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001)). Whether a fact is considered to be “material” is determined by the substantive law, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Hooven-Lewis, 249 F.3d at 265.

         B. Officers' Motion for Summary Judgment

         At bottom, a genuine dispute exists regarding whether the Officers informed Brave of the multiple stories Thompson told them during his February 1987 interrogation. The Court must determine whether the Officers' failure to disclose the multiple stories to Brave would constitute a violation of Owens's due process rights, whether the Officers would be entitled to qualified immunity for such a violation, and whether Owens's claim is barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

         1. Brady Violation

         The Officers argue that if they did fail to disclose Thompson's multiple stories, such a failure does not constitute an unlawful suppression of evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). In Brady, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a prosecutor's suppression of evidence “favorable to the accused” violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when the evidence proves “material to either guilt or punishment.” Id. at 87. The duty to disclose such evidence “encompasses impeachment evidence as well as exculpatory evidence.” Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 280 (1999) (citing United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 676 (1985)). The evidence is considered material “if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. (quoting Bagley, 473 U.S. at 682).

         Such a constitutional violation extends to a police officer's suppression of evidence. Barbee v. Warden, Md. Penitentiary, 331 F.2d 842, 846-47 (4th Cir. 1964); see Strickler, 527 U.S. at 280-81 (explaining Brady “encompasses evidence ‘known only to police investigators and not to the prosecutor.'” (quoting Kyles v. Whitley, 473 U.S. 419, 438 (1995))). “[A] police officer violates a criminal defendant's constitutional rights by withholding exculpatory or impeachment evidence from prosecutors.” Owens v. Balt. City State's Attorneys Office, 767 F.3d 379, 396 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Goodwin v. Metts, 885 F.2d 157, 163-64 (4th Cir. 1989)).

         To prove a claim for a violation of his due process rights by unlawfully suppressing exculpatory evidence, Owens must demonstrate that “(1) the evidence at issue was favorable to him; (2) the Officers suppressed the evidence in bad faith; and (3) prejudice ensued.” Id. at 396-97. Because it is uncontested that Thompson's various stories are favorable to Owens, the Court will turn to the second and third elements of the Brady violation claim.

         a. “Suppressed” in Bad Faith

         First, the Officers argue that Thompson's multiple stories were not “suppressed” because the information was readily accessible to Owens. Specifically, the Officers state that Thompson's confession was revealed in open court in Owens's presence and Owens knew Thompson changed his story previously. The Court, however, is not persuaded by this argument. The simple fact that Owens was aware that Thompson's story changed several times during the investigation did not give Owens reason to believe that Thompson would give four versions of his confession during his February 29, 1988 interrogation, as the Officers slowly informed him of the evidence they believed placed him at the crime scene. If the Officers failed to disclose the four versions to Brave, Owens could only be aware of Thompson's stories told to the Officers on August 3 and 5, 1987, on the witness stand on February 26, 1988, and to the Officers as his final confession on February 29, 1988. As such, the Court concludes that such a failure to disclose could constitute “suppression” under Brady.

         Next, the Officers argue Owens cannot demonstrate that they failed to disclose the impeaching evidence in bad faith. Owens, however, has produced evidence showing that the Officers may have acted in bad faith. Though Dunnigan informed Brave of Thompson's inconsistency, the Officers made the decision, after some disagreement, not to inform Brave of the multiple stories they elicited from Thompson. As soon as Thompson stated a version of events placing him at the crime scene with Owens, the Officers decided to stop questioning Thompson and immediately informed Brave that Thompson confessed. “The temporal proximity between Thompson's succession of narratives and the Officers' report to [Brave] lends support to the contention that Thompson's inconsistent narratives were fresh in the Officers' minds, and thus, the Officers' omissions were not accidental, but intentional and malicious.” Owens, 767 F.3d at 398. The Court, therefore, concludes that Owens has demonstrated that the Officers exhibited bad faith during their disputed failure to disclose.

         b. Prejudice

         The Officers also contend Owens cannot demonstrate that the undisclosed impeachment evidence resulted in prejudice.

Prejudice ensues if “there is a reasonable probability” that the jury would have reached a different result had the evidence been properly disclosed. The adjective “reasonable” is important in this context. As the Supreme Court has explained, “[t]he question is not whether the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict” had the evidence been disclosed. Rather, the question is whether, in the absence of disclosure, ...

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