from the nothing-more-dangerous-than-someone-with-more-power-than-usefulness dept
What happens when you add a bored cop to a cold case? Bad things. Very bad things. That’s the moral of the story conveyed by this Seventh Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF].
Actually, calling it a decision is overstating the conclusions. Apparently, the plaintiff, the defendants, and the lower court all made matters far more confusing than they needed to be, leaving the Appeals Court with a muddied record, unclear assertions from all parties, and open questions as to whether qualified immunity on Fourth Amendment claims had actually been denied.
But the path to the procedural shitshow is a full-blown horror show. An unfortunate death, a full autopsy, no sign of foul play, and yet some officer put out to pasture by his department decided he was the second coming of Columbo and mounted a concerted attempt to ruin a person’s life.
Curt Lovelace’s wife, Cory, died in her bed one morning while Curt was getting their children ready for school. Almost any death in a person’s home will trigger an investigation. This tragedy was no exception.
Because Cory was relatively young when she died, the City of Quincy police, along with several Adams County officials, conducted a thorough investigation of her demise. All the physical evidence pointed toward a natural cause of death. It turned out that Cory was severely alcoholic, bulimic, and had been sick with flu-like symptoms for several days before she died. An autopsy revealed that Cory had been suffering from “marked steatosis of the liver.” Severe steatosis—significant fat throughout the liver—can cause the liver to become inflamed and riddled with scar tissue; at that point the person has cirrhosis of the liver, which can lead to liver failure and death. This evidence could not establish a single, indisputable cause of death, but it was more than enough to suggest an array of plausible natural explanations—chronic alcoholism, when combined with other medical conditions, can itself be fatal. Moreover, Cory’s body bore no signs of violent trauma. She had a small patch of redness under her nose, but it was more consistent with a cold or acne than with violence. And she had a small cut inside her mouth, but because it was already healing when Cory died, it was determined to have predated her death.
Curt’s accounting of the events was corroborated by his children.
Investigators also verified Curt’s account of the morning in question by comparing his story to the physical evidence indicating time of death. Curt recounted that Cory was supposed to take their three school-aged children to school that day, as Curt was scheduled to teach a class at a local university. But Cory was still unwell when she woke up. They decided that Curt would cancel his class and take their children to school instead. At one point Cory came downstairs to help get the children ready, but she was feeling very weak, and so Curt helped her back upstairs and into bed. Curt then took the children to school at around 8:15 am. He was back at the house by 8:35 am, but he did not go upstairs until around 9 am, when he discovered that Cory had died. The police interviewed Curt’s three oldest children; all three corroborated this timeline. In particular, all three confirmed that they had seen their mother alive and moving about on the morning in question.
The autopsy, as noted above, saw no evidence of foul play. There was a question raised about the level of rigor mortis observed by the doctor performing the autopsy, but responders to the scene saw nothing out of the ordinary, noting the body was still warm, pliable, and displaying a minimum amount of lividity. An EMS attendant was able to raise Cory’s arms to a position above her heart so he could attempt to revive her. Her arms remained in the position the EMS tech had moved them to as rigor mortis set in. The investigation was closed shortly thereafter with law enforcement concluding this was a tragic death, not a homicide.
For most of a decade, the case remained closed. But then a cop with too much time on his hands turned his idle hands into the devil’s cold case unit.
There the story should have ended. But seven years later, Detective Gibson set in motion a second act. Formerly one of the Quincy police department’s canine officers, Gibson had been reassigned to elder services after his dog retired. But the new role did not keep him busy, it seems, and so to pass the time he made a habit of reviewing files from old cases. One photo of Cory’s body in the Lovelace file caught Gibson’s attention in November 2013. In it, her arms were raised in what appeared to Gibson to be an unnatural position. He concluded that Curt had suffocated Cory with a pillow the evening before her death was reported, that rigor had set in overnight, and that her arms had stayed put when the pillow was removed sometime the next morning. This was, as we already have noted, wild speculation; Gibson was simply looking at photos that were taken after [the EMS tech had] repositioned Cory’s arms.
Unfortunately, the Quincy PD did not tell the detective to get back to his real work and stop trying to turn closed investigations into ongoing investigations. Detective Gibson managed to rope in a coroner who had spent a few minutes at the home moving Cory’s body. Coroner Keller — years after the fact and prompted by Detective Gibson’s enthusiasm for refusing to leave the past unmolested — made a number of claims supportive of the detective’s murder theory.
[Keller] claimed, apparently without notes or other corroboration, to recall that Cory’s body had been in full, not partial, rigor, and that the room had smelled bad, as if her body had already begun to decompose. Those claims, if true, would have supported Gibson’s alternate timeline and contradicted Curt’s account. But no other eyewitness, including several who had spent far more time on the scene than Keller, had reported a similar degree of rigor or mentioned any strong odor. Moreover, Keller made no effort to explain how someone could have moved Cory’s arms if Keller was correct.
Detective Gibson and his coroner co-conspiracist discarded everything that didn’t agree with the “Curt killed Cory” theory. They began shopping this narrative around to other medical examiners, hoping to obtain an autopsy report that turned the grieving husband into his wife’s murderer.
They started in early January 2014 with Dr. Derrick Pounder. But after hearing Gibson’s theory, Dr. Pounder explained in an email that “rigor is not a reliable method of estimating time of death.” And he advised Gibson that Cory could have spoken to her children that morning, just as Curt claimed, and then been dead with her arms at some stage of rigor 90 minutes later. Gibson did not write up a report memorializing Dr. Pounder’s conclusions.
In late January, Gibson and Keller consulted Dr. Scott Denton. Like the original investigators, Dr. Denton quickly dismissed the redness above the lip and small cut in the mouth as irrelevant. And he, too, homed in on the liver as the most likely cause of death. In February, Gibson met with Dr. Denton in person, but again he made no record of Dr. Denton’s opinions. Nor did Dr. Denton himself submit any report at the time.
They also went back to the person who had performed the original autopsy and tried to get her to change her mind about the cause of death. This effort failed. So did their fourth attempt to secure a medical report in their favor from Dr. Shaku Teas. Teas not only agreed with the other medical experts the pair had approached, but was so troubled by Detective Gibson’s actions, she testified on behalf of Curt Lovelace during his trial.
Fifth time was the charm.
Gibson and Keller’s fifth and final attempt to secure a favorable expert opinion took place in April and May, when they presented the case to Dr. Jane Turner. That time, they took a more aggressive approach. Rather than providing Dr. Turner with an accurate and complete picture of the evidence and allowing her to draw her own conclusions, they provided her with selected background “facts.” They told Dr. Turner that Cory was in full rigor before the paramedics arrived (not mentioning that this was at least disputed), told her about the minor injuries to Cory’s lip and mouth but omitted any mention of the benign explanations for those injuries, and falsely suggested that another expert—Dr. Denton—had already all but confirmed the suffocation theory. Most damningly, they told Dr. Turner about the position of Cory’s arms, but not that the arms had been repositioned by the paramedics. Dr. Turner, making it clear that her conclusions rested solely on the information that had been presented to her, prepared a report supporting the suffocation hypothesis.
Using this, Detective Gibson had Curt Lovelace arrested. Lovelace was incarcerated for 21 months because he was unable to make bail. His first trial ended with a mistrial because of a hung jury. Prosecutors went after Lovelace again, but he was more prepared for the second trial. Documents obtained through FOIA requests uncovered a lot of Detective Gibson’s attempts to build a murder case out of a previously undisputed natural death. This time around, a jury acquitted Lovelace after two hours of deliberation.
The lawsuit followed. Unfortunately for Curt Lovelace, he might not be able to hold Detective Gibson and his coroner buddy liable for wrecking his life. There are questions about whether or not Fourth Amendment claims were preserved for appeal. There are also questions as to whether the lower court has even made a decision on the qualified immunity the defendants are seeking. A lot of this mess will return to the lower court to get sorted out, which means there’s still a chance the detective and the coroner will be able to utilize qualified immunity to have the case tossed.
There’s a credible Fourteenth Amendment claim that survives completely intact, though. This appears to have been argued somewhat poorly at the lower level, but the Appeals Court says there are enough facts in dispute that the lower court should not have awarded qualified immunity on that count. That’s reversed, which means both claims will hopefully be handed over to a jury to sort out just how badly these government employees fucked over Curt Lovelace and how much it should cost them. But that also means any closure — much less compensation — is still probably years away for the man one cop decided might be a murderer.