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Warney v. Monroe County

November 13, 2009

DOUGLAS WARNEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
MONROE COUNTY, LARRY BERNSTEIN, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, WENDY EVANS LEHMAN, IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND MICHAEL C. GREEN, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, CITY OF ROCHESTER, SANDRA ADAMS, IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, EVELYN BEAUDRAULT, IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, STEPHEN EDGETT, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, THOMAS JONES, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, ROBERT GARLAND, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, JOHN GROPP, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, JOHN DOE OFFICERS AND/OR DETECTIVES # 1-10, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES AND RICHARD ROE SUPERVISORS # 1-10, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeal by prosecutors from denial of their motion for absolute or qualified immunity by the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (Larimer, J.) in a suit alleging that the exculpatory result of post-trial DNA testing, conducted by the district attorney's office while defending habeas and other initiatives, was not timely disclosed to plaintiff Douglas Warney, who was in jail for a murder that the DNA testing ultimately showed he did not commit. Because the testing was undertaken in connection with post-trial proceedings and was therefore integral to the advocacy function, we hold that the prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity under Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430--31 (1976).

Reversed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dennis Jacobs, Chief Judge

Argued: June 1, 2009

Before: JACOBS, Chief Judge, NEWMAN and POOLER, Circuit Judges.

Three prosecutors of Monroe County appeal from denial of their motion for absolute or qualified immunity by the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (Larimer, J.) in a suit alleging that the exculpatory result of post-trial DNA testing, conducted by the district attorney's office while defending habeas and other initiatives, was not timely disclosed to plaintiff, who was in jail for a murder that the DNA testing ultimately showed he did not commit. Because the testing was undertaken in connection with post-trial proceedings and was therefore integral to the advocacy function, we hold that the prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity under Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430--31 (1976).

Plaintiff Douglas Warney was wrongfully convicted and jailed for ten years. He sues a number of individuals (and government entities) for violating his constitutional rights. This appeal considers only issues bearing upon the liability and immunity of three Monroe County prosecutors for failing to disclose exculpatory DNA test results promptly.

After Warney's conviction, during the pendency of his federal habeas corpus petition and his appeal from a state-court decision denying him access to DNA evidence, the Monroe County District Attorney's office arranged the DNA testing of crime scene evidence. The results showed that all non-victim blood samples collected at the scene of the crime were from one man, who was not Warney. Using the DNA results, the prosecutors identified the man who actually committed the murder, advised Warney's counsel, interviewed the new suspect to confirm that Warney was not involved, and then achieved Warney's exoneration. Warney alleges that his constitutional rights were violated because at least 72 days elapsed between the date the prosecutors learned of the DNA test results and the date they informed Warney or his counsel.

This appeal requires us to consider the scope of absolute prosecutorial immunity in the post-conviction context.

BACKGROUND

We set out only the facts that bear upon the disposition of this appeal. Since this is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss, we accept as true all well-pled factual allegations, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

A. The Murder

In January 1996, William Beason was found dead in his ransacked apartment on Chili Avenue in Rochester, New York by officers of the Rochester Police Department ("RPD"). In Beason's bathroom, they found a bloodstained knife, a bloody towel, and a bloody tissue. The RPD lifted several fingerprints from two pornographic videotape boxes found in the bedroom, and one partial print from the knife. The autopsy showed nineteen stab wounds to Beason's neck and chest, all of them consistent with the bloody knife found in the bathroom, and defensive wounds on Beason's left hand. Blood evidence was collected from his fingernails. Thus it appeared that Beason died after a violent struggle, and that the perpetrator was cut and had gone into the bathroom to clean blood off himself with the towel and the tissue.

After Beason's murder was reported in the press, Douglas Warney called the RPD "Crimestoppers hotline" and referenced the murder. Warney had an IQ of 68, an eighth-grade education, and full-blown AIDS. (Complaint ¶ 37.) It is not clear what Warney said, but he alleges that he said that he "knew of" Beason.*fn1 An RPD officer went to Warney's apartment to speak to him. The complaint alleges that the RPD was aware that Warney had made numerous crank calls to the police (for which he had received psychiatric assistance), and this officer in particular had responded to Warney's complaints about drug activity in his apartment building. (Id. ¶ 39.) Warney told this officer that he was concerned about his name being brought up in connection with the murder of a "William" on Chili Avenue.

Two days later, RPD detectives picked up Warney at his apartment and brought him to the police station. They put him in a small office and interrogated him, using "escalating coercive tactics" including verbal abuse, and physical and other threats, "in order to force him to admit that he committed the murder." (Id. ¶ 47.) After initial denials, Warney eventually "yielded to [the] coercive tactics and provided at least four wildly different versions of events to the police." (Id. ¶¶ 50-51.)*fn2

In an ensuing typewritten "confession," the detectives included numerous non-public facts about the murder known only to the police and the real killer, facts which (it is now known) Warney could not possibly have known. (Id. ¶ 52.)*fn3 According to the complaint, there were "inconsistencies" in Warney's statement that rendered it wholly implausible.*fn4

Warney signed the confession and initialed minor changes less than four hours after he had been picked up.*fn5

According to the complaint, after Warney's "confession" the police performed no further investigation other than trying to determine whether Warney's cousin could have been an accomplice. Notably, the latent fingerprint collected from a pornographic videotape box was not run through the statewide database.*fn6 (Id. ¶ 63.)

B. The Trial

Certain blood evidence at the scene was found to exclude both Warney and Beason; so Warney was charged both as a principal and an accomplice. At trial, however, the prosecution's only theory was that Warney committed the murder alone, and the prosecution's case rested "almost exclusively" on Warney's confession. (Complaint ¶¶ 79-80.)

At trial, a chemist testified that the blood on the murder weapon was consistent with the victim's Type O, but inconsistent with Warney's Type A; and the bloodstains on the towel and tissue belonged neither to Beason nor Warney. (It fit neither of their "enzyme types.") (Complaint ¶ 74.) Of three latent prints from the pornographic videotape boxes, two belonged to Beason, and the third was unidentified, meaning it belonged to neither Beason nor Warney.*fn7 A second fingerprint specialist examined a partial print from the murder weapon, and found only "three points of comparison," but concluded that Warney was a possible source of the print. (He also specifically excluded Beason.) (Id. ¶ 78.)

Warney testified to his innocence and about the threats from the police that made him confess.

On February 12, 1997, the jury convicted Warney of two counts of second-degree murder. On February 27, he was sentenced to 25 years to life. The judgment was affirmed on appeal, People v. Warney, 299 A.D.2d 956, 750 N.Y.S.2d 731 (4th Dep't 2002), and became final when the New York Court of Appeals ...


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