Watching network TV police shows, you see a lot of storylines involving those who are wrongfully accused. The prosecution hides evidence, a witness is corrupt, and an innocent man goes to jail. That may seem like TV drama. But a recent case in Maryland is reality that would be fit for any TV drama on the airwaves today.
The Conviction of James Owens
James Owens was convicted of murder in 1987 in Baltimore City, and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, fearing that the case against Owens was falling apart, prosecutors decided to “work with” their star witness, feeding him information, promising him leniency, and threatening punishment if he failed to testify against Owens with the information provided to him by the state.
The witness testified that Owens handed him the murder weapon a few days after the murder, and that Owens had confessed to it. The “problem” for the state was that Owen’s boss had told prosecutors that Owens was at work when that conversation supposedly happened (meaning, it couldn’t have happened). Making matters worse, the prosecution did not tell Owen’s attorney about what Owens’ boss had said, as they were legally required to do.
It gets better (or worse). The prosecution failed to disclose that another witness who testified against Owens had sent numerous letters requesting release–information that could have been used by Owens to show the witness had a motive for his testimony.
Owens served 20 years, wrongfully, before DNA evidence exculpated him. Once released, he sued the City of Baltimore and its police force, for the events surrounding his trial.
He sued under what is known as “Section 1983,” a federal statute enacted after the Civil War, which makes it illegal, and allows for recovery of damages, where someone violates another person’s constitutional rights under color of state law.
Normally, you can’t sue government entities if you are wrongfully convicted. The government, including its prosecutors and police force, has immunity from such suits. They have a duty to perform, and even when they get it wrong, they can’t be sued for executing their duties.
But the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has now allowed Owens to go forward on his lawsuit, noting that although immunity still exists, it does not exist where a defendant can show a “pervasive practice” of unconstitutional or illegal behavior. Owens did, in fact, state in his original complaint that the practices of the Baltimore police and prosecutors went beyond his case, and were pervasive.
The court also allowed Owen’s suit against the individual police officers to stand on the same basis. Police officers, just like prosecutors, are duty bound to be forthright with defendants, and to disclose information that may help or exculpate defendants.
Ironically, the detectives who are now viable defendants, apparently served as inspiration for characters on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and HBO’s “The Wire.”
Owens has not won his case yet. The court only said that he can move forward with it–no substantive rulings on the merits of his claims have been made. He’ll still need to prove that what happened to him was pervasive within the city agencies. That’s a tough burden–but at least the decision is a good first step in allowing the wrongfully convicted to get some reparation for wrongdoings against them.
If you are facing a trial, you want a criminal law attorney on your side who understands what the prosecution can and cannot do. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.