Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Ninth Circuit Revives Suit by Man Claiming Coerced Confession
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A man freed after serving 19 years for a murder of which he was convicted on the basis of a confession he said was coerced, and the testimony of an informant later found to have fabricated evidence, is entitled to a second chance to frame his complaint against Los Angeles Police Department detectives, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A three-judge panel unanimously upheld a district judge’s ruling that Harold Hall failed to plead a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim based on fabrication of evidence. But the court also ruled, 2-1, that Hall should be given a chance to amend his complaint to allege that his coerced confession was obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Hall—who the court noted now works full-time for the Los Angeles County Bar Association coordinating the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments Program—was convicted of the 1985 murders of Nola Duncan and her brother, David Rainey. A teenager at the time, he confessed to the murders after being arrested on a robbery charge six weeks after the shootings.
He claimed his confession was the product of 17 or more hours of tag-team interrogation by four detectives. That interrogation, he said, included threats that he would be convicted and placed in a cell with the gang member he had testified against nine months earlier in connection with the October 1984 gang-related shootings on 54th Street that left five dead and five injured.
One of the detectives had befriended him after the 54th Street shootings and arranged for him to be placed in a cell away from general population.
The arrangement “may have helped protect Hall from physical attacks,” Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson noted in her opinion yesterday, but made him “a sitting duck for predatory informants.” One of those, Cornelius Lee, became a key prosecution witness against Hall, but subsequently admitted fabricating notes about Hall’s alleged involvement in the death.
New Trial Ruling
The Court of Appeal for this district reversed the conviction for the Rainey murder, citing insufficient evidence, but upheld Hall’s conviction and life-without-parole sentence for killing Duncan. He ultimately won a Ninth Circuit ruling that both the confession and the informant’s testimony were unreliable and was granted a new trial.
He was freed in 2004 after the District Attorney’s Office said it could not proceed for “[v]arious reasons, including the passage of time and the unavailability of a potential witness,” and the case was dismissed.
His civil rights suit was originally tossed out by U.S. District Judge George Schiavelli of the Central District of California, who subsequently retired, on the city’s motion for summary judgment. Schiavelli also denied the plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint to allege that the circumstances of his interrogation violated the Fifth Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit, however, reversed and sent the case back for reconsideration as to whether Hall could maintain a Fourteenth Amendment claim against the detectives for deliberate fabrication of evidence, pursuant to Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2001).
Another Summary Judgment
On remand, District Judge Audrey B. Collins again granted summary judgment, holding that Devereux does not extend to a coerced-confession claim and that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to support his claim of fabrication of evidence. She also said the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
Collins’ interpretation of Devereux was correct, Nelson said yesterday. But the circumstances of Hall’s confession may have violated the Fifth Amendment, the judge said, and given the “extraordinary” mistreatment of Hall by the system, now justify reversal of Schiavelli’s denial of the motion to amend.
“Justice eluded Hall when he suffered a conviction based on that confession and the patently false inculpatory evidence created by a jailhouse informant,” Nelson wrote. “Justice eluded Hall when he served nineteen years in state prison for a crime he did not commit. And justice will elude Hall yet again without the opportunity to amend his complaint and let a jury decide whether he deserves monetary compensation for his unlawful incarceration.”
Judge Ronald M. Gould concurred, but Judge Sandra S. Ikuta dissented, noting that Hall did not question the denial of his motion to amend on the first appeal.
Her colleagues, Ikuta wrote, “should not have abandoned the long-standing procedural rules we have developed to maintain judicial restraint.”
The case is Hall v. City of Los Angeles, 10-55770.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company