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Douglas Warney v. State of New York

March 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ciparick, J.:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

Claimant Douglas Warney spent over nine years incarcerated for a murder he did not commit. The primary evidence against him was a confession that contained non-public details about the crime. Warney now seeks damages under Court of Claims Act § 8-b, the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act. We conclude that Warney's confession as well as other statements and actions the State attributes to him do not, on the facts as alleged here, warrant dismissal of his claim on the ground that he caused or brought about his conviction.

The facts as stated in the claim and record below are as follows. On January 3, 1996, Rochester Police Department (RPD) officers found William Beason dead in his home, stabbed 19 times in the neck and chest. The following day, Warney called the RPD to provide information about the murder, and was interviewed in his home by an officer. According to the officer's trial testimony, Warney told her that he had been shoveling snow outside "William's" house when he saw his cousin go inside, and that the cousin later admitted to Warney that he had killed Beason.

Warney alleges that he has an IQ of 68, was in special education until he dropped out of school in eighth grade, and was suffering at the time of the Beason investigation from AIDS-related dementia. Additionally, the RPD was aware of his mental condition when they began questioning him about the Beason murder, as officers had transported Warney to a psychiatric facility two weeks earlier for pulling fire alarms and reporting false incidents to the police.

On January 6, 1996, two RPD officers brought Warney to the police station for questioning. The claim alleges that they used "escalating coercive tactics to force . . . Warney to make statements or admissions concerning the murder," and one of them verbally abused and threatened him. It further alleges that the officers denied Warney's request for an attorney.

Warney gave a series of increasingly inculpatory statements, initially blaming his cousin, but eventually confessing to murdering Beason on his own. He signed a detailed written confession stating that, acting alone, he had stabbed Beason repeatedly. The confession contained numerous details that allegedly corroborate crime scene evidence that the RPD had intentionally held back from the public.*fn1 The claim alleges that the officers fed these details to Warney, creating "a false sense of the confession's reliability," and coerced him into adopting the detailed confession as his own.

At central booking, an officer not involved in the investigation asked Warney how he was doing. According to the officer's testimony, he responded, "not good. I've got a body," slang for having killed someone. In contrast, Warney testified that he said, "I'm being charged with a body."

On February 13, 1996, a grand jury indicted Warney on two counts of second degree murder. Before trial, Supreme Court denied Warney's motion to suppress his statements to police, finding that he "initiated most contacts with the police and then freely volunteered information to them," that he never requested an attorney, and that "no threats or promises were ever made to [him] and no fraud or tricks were used to solicit statements." At trial, Warney's signed confession was the primary evidence against him, although he testified that it was coerced and manufactured by the police. The prosecutor emphasized that the confession contained details that, in his words during closing, "only the killer would have known about."

Warney was convicted of both second degree murder counts on February 12, 1997. Supreme Court sentenced him on February 27, 1997 to imprisonment for 25 years to life on each count, to run concurrently. The Appellate Division affirmed (People v Warney, 299 AD2d 956 [4th Dept 2002]) and leave to this Court was denied (93 NY2d 633 [2003]).

Warney consistently maintained his innocence and sought to conduct DNA testing on biological crime scene evidence. Although his application to access this evidence was denied, the People submitted the material for testing, which resulted in a DNA profile that did not match Warney. In March 2006, nine years after Warney's conviction, the Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS) database yielded a match, a man named Eldred Johnson. The RPD discovered that fingerprints from the crime scene matched Johnson's and, on May 11, 2006, Johnson confessed that, acting alone, he had murdered Beason.*fn2 As a result, on May 16, 2006, Supreme Court vacated Warney's conviction and set aside his sentence pursuant to CPL 440.10 (1) (g) on the grounds of newly discovered evidence.

Warney now seeks damages under Court of Claims Act § 8-b for the years he spent wrongly incarcerated. His claim alleges that he "did not cause or contribute to his own wrongful arrest, conviction, or incarceration," but rather his conviction "was the direct result of the intentional and malicious actions of members of the [RPD] who fabricated and coerced a false confession from . . . a man whom they knew had a history of serious mental health problems." The State moved to dismiss the claim for failing to state facts in sufficient detail to demonstrate that Warney is likely to succeed at trial in proving that he did not bring about his own conviction.

Court of Claims granted the State's motion and dismissed the claim. It was "not convinced" that only the perpetrator and police could have known many of the details contained in the confession, and noted that Warney "does not indicate how he was coerced by police to give a false confession." Moreover, the court held that Warney, "by his own actions, which included calling the police to tell them he had information about the murder, trying to frame an innocent man for the crime, and . . . volunteering that he had 'a body' . . . did cause or bring about his own conviction." Warney appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed, reasoning that a criminal defendant who gave an uncoerced false confession that was presented to the jury at trial could not subsequently bring an action under section 8-b, and that Warney failed to adequately allege that his confession was coerced (see Warney v State of New York, 70 AD3d 1475, 1476 [4th Dept 2010]). The Appellate Division also found that Warney brought about his own conviction by making other incriminating statements, and by approaching the police falsely claiming to have information about the murder (see id.). We granted Warney leave to appeal and now reverse.

Court of Claims Act (CCA) § 8-b, the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act, provides a mechanism for "innocent persons who can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that they were unjustly convicted and imprisoned . . . to recover damages against the state" (CCA § 8-b [1]; see also Ivey v State of New York, 80 NY2d 474, 479 [1992]). It offers claimants who meet its strict pleading and ...

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