Circuit Court Overturns Immunity For Law Enforcement Officials Who Sent An Innocent Man To Prison For 22 Years

from the the-'due-process'-railroad dept

An innocent man, who had 22 years of his life taken away by deceitful police officers and prosecutors, has just received a gift from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has stripped the defendants of their immunity. Everything about the case is appalling — from the murders themselves to the behavior of law enforcement.

Byron Halsey, a man with a sixth-grade education and “cognitive limitations,” was railroaded into two life sentences plus 20 years by police officers who ignored evidence pointing to another person (Clifton Hall, Halsey’s next door neighbor and convicted sex offender). The details of the PD’s behavior in the court’s opinions are very troubling. Without a doubt, the zealous prosecution of an innocent man was motivated by the brutal rape, mutilation and murder of two children, aged 7 and 8. But they went too far in their quest to find someone to punish, ignoring their investigative capacities in order to frame Halsey for the murders.

The first round of lies surrounded Halsey’s polygraph test, which was accompanied by an apparently handwritten waiver form which permitted the use of the test results as evidence against him as well as revoked his ability to call an expert witness of polygraph tests in his own defense. Halsey still should have had nothing to fear, because he was telling the truth.

Halsey ate breakfast and then took the polygraph, which, according to an uncontested expert report written years later by Charles Honts, Halsey’s expert on polygraphs, he passed. This report, which Honts prepared with the use of methods of assessing polygraph results that had been upgraded since the time that Brannon gave the test, indicated that despite “some serious problems with the design and implementation” of the exam, Halsey registered “the strongest truthful score possible,” even according to the metric used in 1985.

But telling the truth did nothing for investigators looking to put someone in jail. They spun the test results this way:

Nevertheless, [Raymond] Lynch [prosecutor’s office, Major Crimes Division) testified at Halsey’s criminal trial that when he met with Brannon at the prosecutor’s office, Brannon’s “preliminary” view was that Halsey “was attempting deception.” In fact, [Peter] Brannon [Plainfield Police Dept.] subsequently indicated in a written report that Halsey had lied in some respects, he was likely the killer, and he had acted alone.

Note that Brannon never said Halsey lied — just that he was “attempting to.” The polygraph said otherwise but Brannon had one, and only one, suspect in mind. So, he presented the test that should have cleared Halsey as one that actually implicated him. Brannon’s false assertion had a clear effect on those interrogating Halsey, who now felt they had their man. All they needed was a confession.

The tactics changed. Frank Pfeiffer [Plainfield Police Dept.] honed in on Halsey, telling him he had failed his polygraph and pressuring him to confess.

Pfeiffer and Lynch interrogated Halsey for six uninterrupted hours (following on-and-off questioning during the previous 30 hours, some of which was only “recorded” in a report written by Pfeiffer four days later). The only records of this particular interrogation were handwritten pages slid under the door to the assistant prosecutor (David Hancock) waiting outside the interview room.

Hancock was present to suggest any questions that the detectives might have forgotten to ask and to determine whether there was sufficient probable cause to charge Halsey with the murders…

But Hancock was unable to understand the interview room’s occupants’ conversation and assumed that the pages appellees were sliding to him were an accurate transcription of Halsey’s statements.

So, the entire “confession” was composed of notes taken by an officer and a prosecutor who both convinced they were talking to a murderer. There was no impartial witness or legal representation, no cameras and no recordings. (Please note that the FBI, despite its massive budget and access to millions of dollars worth of electronics, still exclusively uses this method of “recording” during its interrogations — handwritten notes by agents.)

This handwritten statement was signed by a “tired, frustrated” Halsey who just “wanted to go home.” Hancock drew up the charges and the justice system started rolling. But this was the only “evidence” the prosecution had that “tied” Halsey to the murders.

During a hearing in a state trial court on a motion to suppress evidence of the confession, the prosecutor indicated that if the court excluded Halsey’s signed confession, the prosecution would not have sufficient evidence to proceed with the case because the confession was the sole direct evidence linking Halsey to the crimes as there was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony supplying such a link.

Despite hearing that the only thing connecting Halsey with these murders was several pieces of paper written by a police officer and a prosecutor, the state court allowed the “confession” to be admitted.

This happened in 1985. In 2006, the county prosecutor’s office agreed to allow some of its collected evidence from the crime scene to be tested for DNA. This testing cleared Halsey and implicated Hall, the next door neighbor who was interviewed briefly in 1985 by Plainfield police officers. Halsey was released in 2007. Now, he’s in his fourth year of pursuing his lawsuit against several members of the Plainfield law enforcement community.

Officer Pfeiffer and county prosecutor Lynch had both asked for qualified immunity, which the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has denied. They have challenged Halsey’s claim of fabrication of evidence, but their arguments have failed to move the court.

Appellees argue that they cannot be held liable either for fabricating Halsey’s confession, because it “only had relevance once signed,” or for writing their reports describing the investigation, because they wrote those reports after the prosecutor already had filed the charges against Halsey. Pfeiffer’s br. at 30. Those contentions besides being unpersuasive, come too late.

The court points out that even unsigned confessions have relevance, especially if the person has waived their Miranda rights (as Halsey did), so this part of the argument is a non-starter. The second part is simply disingenuous, as the false confession was precisely what led to the charges — and what made them stick.

Appellees allegedly inserted nonpublic facts about the crime (of which Halsey could not have been aware) into a detailed oral confession that Halsey maintains he never made. Their purported fabrication was double-edged: they told the prosecutor that Halsey had confessed even though he had not done so, and they included critical details in the confession to enhance its credibility in order to induce the prosecutor to proceed against Halsey. Accordingly, even if appellees’ contention that oral confessions have no “relevance” were correct in the abstract, as already noted, Halsey’s confession was quite relevant because it played a crucial role in the prosecutor’s decision to charge him.

From that point on, the court takes apart the defendants’ remaining arguments, as well as the previous court’s decision granting summary judgement on all claims. The appellees try various tactics, from arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment was interpreted differently in 1985 to claiming that the “lens of innocence” means any overturned case involving a confession could put law enforcement on the receiving end of a coerced confession lawsuit, but the Third Circuit isn’t buying it.

Instead, the court points out just how damaging granting immunity in this case would be.

A different view is not just unsupported; it is untenable. Adoption of the District Court’s conclusion would mean that there would not be a redressable constitutional violation when a state actor used fabricated evidence in a criminal proceeding if the plaintiff suing the actor could not prove the elements of a malicious prosecution case, such as the lack of probable cause for the prosecution. We need not look beyond this case for a basis to reject appellees’ contention that evidence-fabrication claims must be tied to malicious prosecution cases. The District Court concluded that there was probable cause to charge Halsey even without considering his confession. Even if we agreed with this conclusion (and we do not), we believe that no sensible concept of ordered liberty is consistent with law enforcement cooking up its own evidence.

We emphatically reject the notion that due process of law permits the police to frame suspects.

Halsey won’t get twenty-two years of his life back, but he will be allowed to continue his lawsuit against those who deprived him of his freedom. And the Circuit Court’s opinion helps shore up Fourteenth Amendment protections for everyone

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Comments on “Circuit Court Overturns Immunity For Law Enforcement Officials Who Sent An Innocent Man To Prison For 22 Years”

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MrWilson says:

Re: legal bullying

What I don’t understand is why there isn’t a law-mandated neutral party present to observe all police interrogations, regardless of whether a police officer is present. The law needs to recognize that police officers are inherently biased and cannot be trusted to regulate their own behavior. In the same respect that we have UN human rights observers in battle-torn countries, we need citizen rights observers for all events that occur at a police station. I don’t expect them to ride-along with cops on the street, but if the cops are getting confessions in an interrogation room or just plain psychologically torturing people in cells for days (or denying them medical treatment for days after beating them up), there needs to be a neutral party to witness it to make sure the cops aren’t coercing the suspect. FSM forbid that cops have to have real evidence of guilt rather than officer written confessions in an age of 21st century technology.

Special Agent Dickwad says:

Re: Re: legal bullying

As the Deputy above would point out to you this ‘impartial observer’ is already available. It is called a “camera”. We here at the FBI don’t use them because until recently the camera was trusted more than officer witness testimony.

And before any one asks Deputy Dickwad and I are related. He married my sister and availed himself of a name change.

It just wouldn’t do to have a Deputy Friendly running around and taking crooks off the streets with the type of tactics we’ve been using.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’ve always considered the Police to be regular citizens with an added responsibility. I see no reason why their actions can’t be held against them even if they are pursued in the course of Justice. Their intentions may be noble, but the ends must be justified by the means. That’s the whole point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

IMO police and similar officers should only have the powers of a sworn officer while their actions are recorded, and only then if they present the recording to the subjects of their actions.

The cameras should also clearly indicate when they are recording, to prevent abuse of authority – say, with bright blue LEDs which illuminate when the camera is active.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

For every one of these cases that comes to light, how many haven’t we heard of yet?
Then there are the cases where they force the person they railroaded into jail to not come after them.
Then there are the cases where protecting the office and conviction rate outweighs the crimes committed to put people in prison wrongly.

Perhaps it is time to rethink how the system works, because this is all wrong.

Tim A says:

Wow.. this is absolutely disgusting! Everyone involved needs to burn for it.

Apparently Hall got himself thrown into prison for something else before this was finally pinned on him, but he died before he could stand trial for it.

Clifton Hall awaiting trial for Plainfield double homicide dies in jail

At least the tax payers aren’t paying for his room and board…

Anonymous Coward says:

and we, the public, are supposed to respect law enforcement officers? supposed to look up to them? supposed to trust them? this is definitely NOT a good example of how the police should behave!! how can anyone trust what is said again? regardless of whether the person is guilty or not, the truth should have been told and used. spinning the amount of bullshit used against this guy, just so as to a) get a conviction, b) to get a sentence that’s out of this world and c) to make names for law enforcement both in the Police Dept and the Prosecutors Office is disgraceful. those concerned should be prosecuted themselves, regardless of age, and made to feel the extent of the law that they used so disgracfully!

Dan G Difino says:

What's in a name?

Never ceases to amaze me how many times I’ve noticed names like Shottenanger, Nuesome, Harden and Lynch working on the side of the prosecution or behind the bench. Ok, I made the first one up, but I stood before a Judge Lynch before for a traffic incident and besides worrying about the obvious, I couldn’t help to think how if my name was Lynch, I would have become a judge!

mcinsand (profile) says:

What about others in prison?

How does this affect other people that these officers put into prison? It looks to me like the police department is getting ready to face a mountain of litigative headaches for tolerating these bozos… and they deserve it especially if they aren’t working diligently to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Again with the polygraph abuse

“Frank Pfeiffer [Plainfield Police Dept.] honed in on Halsey, telling him he had failed his polygraph and pressuring him to confess.”

This is very, very common. Although they’re worthless in terms of directly determining whether or not someone is being truthful, they are useful as a tool of coercion. It goes like this — the suspect is given the polygraph and (regardless of the results) is told that they failed. They’re then told that things will go much easier on them if they just confess right then and there. The suspect assumes that their fate is sealed because the polygraph is “evidence” (even though it’s not) and often confesses to a crime they didn’t commit in order to reduce the harm they believe is inevitable.

This also works hand-in-hand with the common misperception that innocent people will almost never confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

Rekrul says:

Even honest police don’t really investigate crimes. They pick the person who seems like the most likely suspect to them and then they spend all their time and energy trying to prove their guilt to the exclusion of all else. When the evidence doesn’t support their theory, they simply assume that the suspect has done a good job of covering up their tracks.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“They pick the person who seems like the most likely suspect to them and then they spend all their time and energy trying to prove their guilt to the exclusion of all else.”

I disagree. Honest police would never do this at all, period. Cops doing things this way are dishonest cops, regardless of how they otherwise appear.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Re:

I recall reading an account of a kidnapped girl a couple years ago. Despite having absolutely no evidence, they were convinced that her uncle had taken her. Not only did they make his life a living hell for the better part of a year, they actually ignored evidence that pointed to the real kidnapper. I forget the details now, but it was someone outside the family, but who worked for them. As I recall, the girl was eventually found alive and the true culprit arrested.

Ryan Waxx says:

You know what’s chilling? The idea that any time an officer writes up a confession from what (he claims) a detainee says is “fabricating evidence”. That’s some monstrously Orwellian twisting of words there.

I came to this page expecting actual misconduct. Instead, there’s a series of allegations that things weren’t documented properly… and then then author admits that the FBI still does things the same way!

Now, I’m as on-board with the whole idea that it’s a crime what cops get away with, but if the best you can come up with, you’re going to need to take these guy’s entire department along with them.

Only thing that’s NOT a usual thing cops get away with is the lying about the polygraph, and even then the author weasels around with what the definition of “is” is. Cops lie to suspects ALL THE TIME to elicit confessions, so telling him he failed his polygraph isn’t even unusual.

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