Calling a case “exceptional,” a panel of judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Harold C. Hall can sue the Los Angeles Police Department after serving 19 years for murders that he did not commit and allegedly confessed to under coercion by the police. The panel began its presentation with the understatement of a lifetime: “Some might call Hall an unlucky fellow.”
The case is an all too familiar fact pattern of weak evidence, coercion of a confession and the use of jailhouse snitches. The latter informants are notoriously unreliable but serve as a ready resource for prosecutors in seeking collaborating testimony.
Hall had previously testified against members of a gang and impressed a detective as someone who was trying to set his life straight. That would end with the murders of siblings Nola Duncan and David Rainey in June 1985. While the facts laid out by the court is lengthy below, it offers an insight into the criminal justice system:
The police had reason to believe that Theadry Art Powell, Jr. committed the murders. Powell had a motive: Duncan sold Powell low-quality or doctored PCP hours before she died. When Powell discovered what Duncan had done, a witness overheard Powell exclaim, ªI hate that bitch, go kill her!º before three men left Powell’s house. When questioned by police, Powell initially claimed that he had not seen Duncan in three months, but later changed his story twice and admit-ted he had seen her on the night she died. Powell ultimately implicated two of his associates, Jerry Williams and Lonnie Wardlow, suggesting that maybe one or both of them took part in Duncan’s murder. A polygrapher determined that both Powell and Wardlow falsely denied their involvement in Duncan’s killing. Despite these leads, the police did not investigate Powell, Williams or Wardlow as suspects in Duncan’s murder.
The police arrested Hall for robbery in August 1985, six weeks after the Duncan-Rainey murders. Upon his arrest, Hall reached out to Dufort, seeking protection inside the jail from gang members who sought revenge for Hall’s testimony in the 54th Street shooting case. Dufort arranged for Hall to be housed with other informants. While his segregation from the general population may have helped protect Hall from physical attacks, he became a sitting duck for predatory informants. Three experienced jailhouse informants, with cases pending, discussed Duncan’s murder with Hall. Those informants then falsely implicated Hall in the Duncan-Rainey murders by concocting a story that Hall had confessed to the murders.
Detectives Arneson and Crocker, Appellees, worked on the Duncan-Rainey case and received information from these jail-house informants incriminating Hall. The first time Arneson and Crocker interviewed Hall, they asked him what he had heard about the Duncan-Rainey murders. Hall responded that he ªjust heard some stuffº and that he was ªjust a witness.º The officers did not read Hall his Miranda rights. The next interview took place four days later and lasted about ten min-utes. Two days later, on September 11, 1985, Arneson called Dufort. Arneson said that he planned to interview Hall and insisted that Dufort be there, but would not say why. Dufort tried several times to avoid attending the interview because he was too busy with other work, but ultimately agreed to meet Arneson at the jail. Dufort arrived with his partner, Aaron Martin. They met with Arneson and Crocker, as well as with informant Cornelius Lee. Lee identified Hall as the driver in the 54th Street shooting, suggesting that Hall was not, in fact, an innocent witness as he had testified.
The police then interrogated Hall. First, Dufort and Martin questioned Hall for several hours about the 54th Street shoot-ing. Arneson and Crocker popped into the interview room to ask if they could speak to Hall after Dufort and Martin were finished. The police then moved Hall to a different booth where all four detectives questioned him about the Duncan-Rainey murders. The detectives did not advise Hall of his Miranda rights. The detectives used a ªwe know more information than you think we knowº technique in questioning him.
The police asked Hall whether, before the murder, he was smoking dope at a beauty shop with Duncan, whether he had sex with her and whether he had stabbed her. Hall denied stabbing Duncan or having anything to do with her murder, but the police persisted. Arneson falsely claimed that the police had found Hall’s semen in Duncan’s mouth and his fingerprints on her body. At this point, Hall became very afraid. He asked for an attorney. Arneson asked Hall why he needed an attorney if he was innocent and said that the only people who need attorneys are guilty and trying to hide something. Arneson then told Hall that the police had found his footprint in the alley near Duncan’s body. Hall persisted in his denials.
Arneson then suggested that the police file charges against Hall. Dufort warned Hall that if the police filed murder charges against him and a jury convicted him, he would go to prison with Ace Capone, the Bloods gang member he testified against, and that Capone would kill him. Crocker added that, if Hall ended up in state prison, all the Bloods would be after him for testifying against Capone and that all the Crips, the rival gang, would be after him for driving Capone to the 54th Street shooting. Hall felt tired and hungry, but the detectives kept berating him. The police continued to reject Hall’s claims that he had nothing to do with the murders.
Fear took over. Hall worried that if he did not confess, the police would file murder charges. If he was convicted of murder, he would go to prison and be killed. He also worried that if he did not cooperate, the police would remove him from protective housing and put him in the general population, where he would be in danger. Hall broke down and cried, hoping his display of emotion would inspire mercy. It did not.
Hall gave in to desperation, fear and fatigue. The police fed Hall the ªfactsº about what happened the night of the Duncan-Rainey murder. Hall either acquiesced to each statement or repeated it back to Arneson. Hall both initialed next to mis-takes in the statement Crocker had handwritten and signed the statement at the bottom, as the police directed. He did not read the statement. This interrogation lasted somewhere between two and six hours, and the police did not afford Hall any food or bathroom breaks.
After Arneson and Crocker left, Dufort and Martin continued to interrogate Hall about the 54th Street shooting case until the early morning. In all, Hall was questioned between 17 and 19 hours that day. Hall was handcuffed during the interrogations and denied food.
The State charged Hall with the murders of Duncan and Rainey. No physical or forensic evidence connected Hall to the murders. The sole evidence admitted at trial comprised Hall’s confession and two documents provided by jailhouse informant Lee — the same Lee who implicated Hall as the driver in the 54th Street shooting.
Hall’s conviction was later overturned. While the prosecutors fought the challenge for years, they finally decided not to re-try him and he was released. On the Ninth Circuit, two of the judges ruled that Hall should be allowed to pursue his lawsuit, reversing a lower court judge. Judge Dorothy Nelson acknowledged that Hall’s counsel failed to include a critical claim below. However, Nelson insisted that the matter comes down to the basic notion of justice:
Certainly, on these facts, Hall’s § 1983 counsel should have pled a Fifth Amendment coerced confession claim in the initial complaint. That error turned out to be unfortunate and, without remand for amendment of the complaint, would prove dire to Hall’s case. But we cannot escape the fact that justice eluded Hall during his highly suspect, and constitutionally questionable, interrogation. Justice eluded Hall when he suffered a conviction based on that confession and the patently false inculpatory evidence created by a jailhouse informant. 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. If ever there were an exceptional case where we should exercise our discretionary power to avoid manifest injustice, we believe this must be it.
Bush appointee Judge Sandra S. Ikuta disagree and insisted that the case should be dismissed. Ikuta insisted that the procedural errors should dictate the result: “These equitable concerns carry the majority beyond what the Constitution empowers us to do. Article III gives us the authority to decide cases and controversies, provided to us through the proper adversarial clash between litigants.”
The case is Hall v. City of Los Angeles, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 19980 (Sept. 24, 2012)
Source: LA Times