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    Public Law Legal Research Blog

    PUBLIC LAW: Wrongful Murder Conviction for Withholding Exculpatory Information

    Posted by Gale Burns on Fri, Jan 7, 2011 @ 12:01 PM

    December 21, 2010

    John Stone—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    In 1999, a jury convicted Clarence Elkins of the 1998 crimes of raping and murdering his mother-in-law, and assaulting and raping his six-year-old niece. The jury then sentenced him to life in prison with no eligibility for parole. Seven years later, Elkins obtained DNA evidence that proved that Earl Mann, the mother-in-law's neighbor at the time of the murder, had committed the crimes, and Elkins was exonerated.

    Elkins brought suit on a variety of state and federal claims in the federal district court against the City of Barberton, Ohio, and against multiple officers and detectives who had investigated the murder. Elkins claimed that the officers had failed to disclose to the prosecution a memorandum that would have exonerated him. The officers and the City moved for summary judgment on all the claims, asserting that they were entitled to qualified immunity and state sovereign immunity. As for the federal claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the court dismissed the claims against the City but denied the officers qualified immunity on the claims based on the violation of Elkins's constitutional right to due process. Elkins v. Summit County

    , No. 5:06-CV-3004, 2009 WL 1150114 (N.D. Ohio Apr. 28, 2009) (not reported), aff'd, 615 F.3d 671 (6th Cir. 2010).

    At Elkins's trial, the niece identified Elkins as the perpetrator, but Elkins presented substantial evidence that someone else had committed the crime. Elkins's then wife, Melinda Elkins, the murder victim's daughter, testified that Elkins had been at home with her, 40 miles away from the victim's house, at the time of the crime. Other witnesses testified to having spent time with Elkins during the evening until shortly before the murder occurred. Most significantly, the officers had recovered hairs from the crime scene that, when subjected to DNA analysis, did not match Elkins's hair. In their further attempts to find a DNA match, the officers obtained hair samples from several other individuals but found no match. Ultimately a jury convicted Elkins on all charges.

    In 2002, the niece recanted her testimony, but the State did not reverse its conviction. That same year, through what the appellate court called "a series of breathtakingly improbable coincidences," id. at 674, Elkins began to suspect that Mann was the real murderer. First, Elkins became aware of a news report stating that Mann had been arrested and convicted of molesting his three young daughters while living next door to Elkins's mother-in-law. As luck would have it, Mann was sentenced to prison and transferred to the same facility where Elkins was housed. Then Elkins noticed one day that Mann had left a cigarette butt on a table in the recreational area. Elkins asked another prisoner to stand guard over the butt while he located some toilet paper to wrap the cigarette in, so as not to taint any DNA evidence. Elkins then spent the next two weeks illicitly trying to get a plastic bag through the prison black market so that he could smuggle the cigarette out of prison for his attorney to test—which he eventually did.

    Subsequent testing revealed that Mann's DNA matched the DNA found at the murder scene, and, after an investigation, Elkins was released from prison after having served seven years. Mann ultimately pleaded guilty to the murder, and the criminal case against Elkins was dismissed.

    In Elkins's civil suit, the district court held that, in a summary judgment posture, it must infer or assume that the detectives had both received and failed to disclose the exculpatory memorandum and that the failure to disclose the memorandum violated Elkins's right to due process in the criminal case against him. (It further held that Elkins had presented sufficient evidence to show that the officers had acted in bad faith or been reckless in failing to disclose the memorandum, and that he had therefore provided sufficient evidence to support a state law malicious prosecution claim.)

    In the appeal by the defendant police officers, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court's denial of their claim to a qualified immunity defense. When the defendants failed to disclose to the prosecution or to the defense the memorandum memorializing Mann's statement suggesting his involvement in the murder for which Elkins was being prosecuted, they violated a clearly established constitutional right to the disclosure of favorable evidence. Moreover, the exculpatory value of the memorandum was apparent, and there was obvious merit to Elkins's contention that disclosure of the memorandum would likely have made a substantial difference to the outcome of his criminal trial. See California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479 (1984) (Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires State to disclose to criminal defendants favorable evidence that is material either to guilt or to punishment); Moldowan v. City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351 (6th Cir. 2009) (obligation of police, under Due Process Clause, to disclose exculpatory evidence was clearly established as of date of detective's alleged violation of that duty, as required to overcome detective's qualified immunity claim in arrestee's § 1983 action; decisions from other circuits had recognized that type of Brady [v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)] claim prior to earliest possible date for detective's involvement in the case, and any reasonable police officer would have known that suppressing exculpatory evidence was a violation of the arrestee's constitutional rights).

    Based on the six-year-old niece's statement that the rapist looked like her uncle, the Barberton police had arrested Elkins, and shortly thereafter he was indicted on charges of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, rape, and felonious assault. While the Elkins investigation was ongoing, Mann was arrested by the Barberton police for two "strong-arm" robberies. During the course of that arrest, Mann, who was drunk, asked a patrol officer, "Why don't you charge me with the Judy Johnson murder?" 615 F.3d at 673. In compliance with his training mandating that officers report anything they believe the Detective Bureau should know about, the patrol officer wrote an interdepartmental memorandum memorializing Mann's statement and directed it that same day to the department investigating the murder. The patrol officer later testified that after he had written the memorandum, he placed it in a mail box that, according to department procedures, was emptied each day by a member of the Detective Bureau and disseminated to the detectives working on the specific case. However, the Mann memorandum was not disclosed to Elkins or to the prosecution and was never produced.

    Topics: legal research, Due Process Clause, qualified immunity, public law, John M Stone, exculpatory information, DNA evidence, state sovereign immunity

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