Friday, January 15, 2010
Court Revives Lawsuit by Wrongly Accused Teenagers
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday revived the bulk of a civil rights lawsuit three wrongly-accused teenage murder suspects filed against authorities who helped arrest and charge them with the 1998 stabbing death of a 12-year-old Escondido girl.
A three-judge panel overturned a decision by U.S. District Court Judge John S. Rhoades of the Southern District of California, who gutted the case on summary judgment because the coerced confessions at the heart of the lawsuit were never used at trial.
In an opinion by Judge Sidney R. Thomas, the appellate court held that the three suspects accused of murdering one’s sister had a cause of action against police where their statements—which were extracted during grueling interviews over several days—were used to charge them and in pretrial proceedings.
The case began on the morning of Jan. 21, 1998, when Stephanie Crowe’s grandmother found the girl dead in her Escondido bedroom.
Investigators quickly focused on Crowe’s 14-year-old brother, Michael, noting their suspicion was aroused when they noticed him emotionlessly playing a handheld videogame while the rest of the family grieved the morning his sister’s body was discovered. Soon after, investigators implicated Michael’s friends, Aaron Hauser and Joshua Treadway.
The three were repeatedly subjected to what Thomas characterized as “hours of grueling, psychologically abusive interrogation—during which the boys were isolated from their families and had no access to lawyers,” until each broke down and confessed.
The boys were indicted on murder charges, but the charges were dropped a year after the murder when DNA testing revealed Stephanie Crowe’s blood on the shirt of a transient, Richard Tuite, who was later convicted of her murder
Tuite had been seen in the Crowes’ neighborhood on the night of the murder and several neighbors had reported him for strange and harassing behavior. The shirt had been collected as part of the initial investigation, but had never been fully tested.
The boys and their families sued the Escondido police officers and others involved in the investigation and their prosecution for constitutional violations.
They also brought defamation claims against a prosecutor who discussed the case on the television news program “48 Hours,” and a clinical psychologist who helped formulate and direct officers’ tactical plans during the interrogations.
Treadway dropped out after Rhoades granted summary judgment to the defendants on the bulk of the trio’s claims, but Crowe, Hauser and their families appealed. Several defendants also cross-appealed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds as to several claims.
Escondido City Attorney Jeffrey Epp did not return a telephone call.
The Crowes’ attorney, Milton Silverman, predicted the case will go to trial this year, unless the ruling is appealed.
“I gave them a chance 10 years ago to settle and they jerked me around,” he said. “This case is going to trial.”
Thomas wrote that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on the boys’ Fifth Amendment claims because it was clearly established that a cause of action arose as soon as the officers employed coercive means to compel a statement.
He said the interrogations—during which the teenagers “were isolated and subjected to hours and hours of interrogation during which they were cajoled, threatened, lied to, and relentlessly pressured by teams of police officers”—violated the teens’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to substantive due process, adding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because the techniques they used “shock the conscience.”
However, he wrote that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity on Michael Crowe’s claim that they lacked probable cause to arrest him because they could have reasonably believed probable cause existed where Crowe appeared to be lying about seeing his sister’s door closed in the middle of the night, no one else heard anyone enter the home that night and the family dog never barked.
Thomas also said police had probable cause to arrest Hauser given Treadway’s statement that Hauser gave him a knife, told him it was used in Stephanie’s killing, and admitted participating in the murder. Police found the knife, which fit the description of the knife used in the murder, under Treadway’s bed.
The judge rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Rhoades erred in throwing out their claims that warrants for searches of Hauser’s home lacked probable cause, but said police failed to show that Michael Crowe’s parents and siblings consented to being strip-searched by police and being photographed nude or semi-nude.
The panel further ruled that no reasonable police officer could have believed that the desire to prove someone else killed Stephanie Crowe established probable cause for a warrant ordering her parents, Stephen and Cheryl Crowe, to provide blood samples.
Thomas said Rhoades properly denied summary judgment to the defendants on the claim that Stephanie Crowe’s parents were unlawfully detained in a police station on the day of their daughter’s murder when a detective pulled his gun, pointed at Stephen Crowe’s chest and told the pair to return upstairs before telling them they had to go to a hotel and could not leave.
He said Rhoades erred by granting the defendants summary judgment as to conspiracy claims against the psychologist, but not as to one detective where the plaintiffs failed to show he shared the objective of wrongfully prosecuting the teenagers. He also said the district court erred in granting the defendants summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ deprivation of familial companionship claims.
However, Thomas wrote that the plaintiffs’ defamation claims failed because the statements in question were not defamatory as a matter of law, and said their municipal liability claims failed because they did not allege a municipal policy permitted or encouraged the practice of coercing confessions.
Judges Stephen S. Trott and Raymond C. Fisher joined Thomas in his opinion.
The case is Crowe v. Wrisley, 05-55467.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company